Few people were willing to talk publicly about Erica Griswold at the Few of the Many Awards honoring African Americans in the arts Sunday night in Annapolis.

Yet, even those who said they wouldn’t discuss allegations that Griswold, the first Black person elected register of wills in Anne Arundel County, had stolen money in the course of her job ended up saying things that might as well have been about her.

“We elect someone to office; they represent our hopes and our dreams,” longtime civil rights activist Carl Snowden told the crowd of about 400 at Maryland Hall for the Creative Arts. “They run on a platform, that’s why it’s important to know who you vote for.”

Any discussion of the criminal case against Griswold has to be prefaced with this: She’s innocent until proven guilty. Griswold’s lawyer told The Banner last month that she intends to plead not guilty, but he declined further comment at the time. Griswold’s decided not to address her indictment publicly, and that’s fair, too.

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There are people who would like to hear from her, though. Some of them were told she was a hero.

“I’ve been waiting for something,” said Comacell Brown, an artist and community activist painting at the awards ceremony. “It’s been very quiet. She hasn’t said anything.”

At this point, broad details of the state prosecutor’s case are well known. On Jan. 26, a grand jury indicted Griswold on charges of misconduct in office, misappropriation by a fiduciary and theft.

Those are the legal terms. The narrative goes like this — the Annapolis Democrat heads the office that deals with wills and estates. In June, prosecutors allege, she cashed a $6,645 check for inheritance taxes made out to her and kept the cash. She was told several times to repay the money, but she has not, according to the indictment.

What happens when someone hailed as a hero stumbles?

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“I’m disappointed,” said Brown, who will help lead a teen summit on gun violence next month. “There were people who didn’t want you there. You let a lot of people down.”

Snowden, who serves as a cheerleader and historian at events celebrating the Black community in Anne Arundel County, has added Griswold to his homily on progress since her election. The 2022 election was a bellwether year for equality, particularly in the red-brick courthouse near the center of Annapolis.

It has long been a sore point for Black activists and voters. They’ve witnessed generations of judges, clerks and lawyers, few of whom looked like them, administer the law — often in ways that seemed tilted against them, or outright racist.

A few Black judges now sit on the circuit and district court benches, but there were long periods when it was an all-white club. Everett Sesker became the first Black person elected sheriff in 2022, and Vickie Gipson was elevated to chief judge just four years after she broke the color barrier on the Orphans Court.

If Griswold’s office is obscure, that hardly mattered. The job serves as a clerk to the Orphans Court, which supervises wills and estates.

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Her victory over incumbent Lauren Parker was a surprise, one that gave partisan cynics a chance to paste her with the carryall label of “accidental” winner, a dismissal trotted out every time momentum shifts to the other party.

I don’t think that’s true. If momentum helped them, it might have come from Democrat Wes Moore, who was elected Maryland’s first Black governor. Yes, he won over a spectacularly flawed Republican opponent, but that doesn’t detract from Moore’s achievement.

Griswold and the others campaigned, asking for votes as part of activists’ long campaign to effect change at the county courthouse.

Last year, she was among 14 lauded as examples of Black resilience with their own Few Among the Many ceremony, taking home awards sponsored by County Executive Steuart Pittman’s office and Snowden’s activist group, the Caucus of African American Leaders.

As recently as January, just two weeks before the indictment, Griswold was recognized at the annual Martin Luther King Jr. awards dinner for her outreach to communities often left behind by proceedings at the courthouse.

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“She focuses on ensuring all Anne Arundel County residents, particularly families in marginalized communities, have full access to the resources within the Office of the Register of Wills,” the committee said in announcing the award.

How can this not sting the community that acclaimed her?

“When we get to the end of the process, maybe we’ll have that conversation,” County Council member Pete Smith said.

He knows, possibly better than anyone in local government today, about the need to wait until the end.

In 2011, then-Councilman Daryl Jones was convicted of failing to file a tax return. In his plea agreement with federal prosecutors, he acknowledged not filing between 2002 and 2007 and spent a few months in prison.

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His fellow council members declared his seat vacant and appointed Smith to replace him. Sitting in prison, Jones asked the courts to restore him to office, arguing that nothing in the county charter gave the council the power to remove him despite the conviction. In 2013, the Maryland Court of Appeals agreed. Smith stepped down and Jones returned to office.

Who knows how the charges against Griswold will play out or what her future might be? It’s not clear why she was asked repeatedly to repay the funds before being charged.

Republicans, not surprisingly, are calling for her to resign.

Jones, reflecting a couple years ago on his ouster and return, said deciding to fight is a personal choice.

“Some people will be able to deal with everything privately and no one will ever know the things that they’re going through,” he told me at the time. “Others will deal with issues publicly and everyone will watch what you’re going through. The question is, what is the content of your character?”

Griswold’s first court date isn’t until April. If she is convicted, state law dictates what happens next: She’s automatically removed from office. Gipson, along with the other two judges of the Orphans Court, would appoint a replacement.

One way to look at this is as a failure of journalism. Griswold has a history of rent disputes that ended up in court, and she filed for bankruptcy twice.

A register of wills is essentially a clerk, handling other people’s money and property, ensuring paperwork is filed, wills are followed and estates settled. At the very least, someone should have asked Griswold whether her financial history would affect her ability to do the job.

When Snowden, the master of ceremonies at Sunday’s awards ceremony, talked about candidates carrying the hopes and dreams of their supporters, he was talking about Pittman. He thanked him for co-sponsoring the awards and what they stand for in a county with its own unique history of racism.

For his part, Pittman sees the arts as one way to overcome that legacy.

“I think about the way art and artists and art productions are able to say things that sometimes you don’t quite want to say in words, sometimes what people don’t really want to hear,” he said. “And you put it into a play, or you put it into a piece of art, you reach their souls even if their brains aren’t quite ready for what you had to say.”

As Chanel Compton, director of the Banneker-Douglass Museum, told the stories of the artists being honored — the painters, singers, publishers, gallery owners and arts promoters next to her on stage — I realized what happens to Griswold might not matter so much to the community that helped elect her.

If anything, the accomplishments spelled out on that stage were a reminder that there is still plenty to celebrate.

When a movement’s hero stumbles, someone is probably waiting to take their place.

Rick Hutzell is the Annapolis columnist for The Baltimore Banner. He writes about what's happening today, how we got here and we're we're going next. The former editor of Capital Gazette, he led the newspaper to a Pulitzer Prize for coverage of the 2018 mass shooting in its newsroom. 

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