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Dixon convicted of embezzlement

Jurors in the theft trial of Sheila Dixon convicted the Baltimore mayor Tuesday on a single charge of taking gift cards intended for the city's poor.

Although Dixon was acquitted of a felony theft charge, her misdemeanor conviction could force her from office.

Jurors deliberated more than six days after hearing the Democrat was accused of using or keeping $630 worth of gift cards. She allegedly solicited most of the cards from a wealthy developer and then bought electronics at Best Buy, clothes at Old Navy and other items at Target.

The jury convicted her on one count of fraudulent misappropriation by a fiduciary and acquitted her on two counts of felony theft and one count of misconduct in office. Jurors failed to reach a verdict on another count of fraudulent misappropriation by a fiduciary. The conviction carries a maximum penalty of five years in prison, but prosecutors have not decided whether they will seek jail time.

"The city will still continue to move forward," Dixon said outside the courthouse after the verdict. "This city will continue to run. ... We won't miss a step."

Some of her supporters applauded as she left the courthouse.

Her office released a statement from the mayor later in the day that said: "Today, I thank God for the strength He has given me. I want to thank my family for their undying support, and all of my staff, supporters, and friends for the countless prayers and encouraging words. Thank you for standing by me. The jury's verdict today does not impact my responsibility to continue serving and I remain focused on keeping Baltimore on course in these trying economic times.

"I want the people of this great city to know that my administration is fortunate to have a talented and dedicated team of professionals running city agencies and departments. Like me, my team remains focused on the everyday business of this city. I am blessed with opportunity to serve the people of Baltimore."

Earlier Tuesday, jurors sent a note to Judge Dennis M. Sweeney asking whether the panel needed to reach a unanimous decision on all five counts against the mayor. The note, written by juror No. 11 and signed by the forewoman, had the word "all" underlined.

Sweeney brought the jurors into the courtroom and explained to them that they could return a partial verdict. He did not take questions from the jurors in the courtroom, but said that they could send another note with any additional questions.

Several jurors nodded as Sweeney explained that the court can accept a partial verdict.

Because prosecutors used different legal theories in charging Dixon, she could have been convicted of a maximum of three counts. Dixon faced conviction on the following counts:

• Count One

The jury found Dixon not guilty of the most serious crime, felony theft. The jury decided that Dixon did not knowingly steal about $630 in Target and Best Buy gift cards purchased in December 2005 by developer Patrick Turner, who testified they were intended for "the children of Baltimore." Dixon was City Council president at the time.

or

• Count Four

The jury convicted Dixon of embezzlement, a misdemeanor, for violating her fiduciary duties to the city and citizens of Baltimore by using the Target and Best Buy gift cards purchased in December 2005 by Turner and worth about $630.

• Count Three

Dixon was not convicted of theft for taking six Toys "R" Us gift cards purchased with taxpayer money in 2007 for a city housing department charity event called the Holly Trolley tour. Dixon gave one of the cards to a wealthy aide, and the others were found in a Victoria's Secret shopping bag in Dixon's home when it was raided last year.

or

• Count Six

The jury was hung on the count of embezzlement. Dixon was accused of violating her fiduciary duties to the city and citizens of Baltimore by taking the six Toys "R" Us gift cards intended for the city housing department's 2007 Holly Trolley tour. Juror No. 3 said the jury was split, 9-3, in favor of convicting the mayor on this charge.

• Count Seven

Dixon was found not guilty of misconduct in office for stealing the Holly Trolley cards.

The five theft-related counts stemmed from a nearly four-year investigation into City Hall corruption that has centered on relationships between public officials and developers who have relied on tax breaks for projects.

Two of the original seven counts -- felony theft of gift cards worth more than $500 and fraudulent misappropriation of the gift cards donated by Ronald H. Lipscomb and Doracon, owned by Lipscomb -- were tossed out when the state rested its case without calling the developer, who said he had given Dixon gift cards for charity, as a witness.

After the verdict was read, State Prosecutor Robert A. Rohrbaugh said that the jury made a courageous decision.

"It's a sad day for Baltimore," he said. " ... The message is that there's nobody above the law."

Looking ahead, Rohrbaugh said that he needs time to think about how to proceed on Count Six, the charge of embezzlement on the Holly Trolley gift cards. And the mayor's legal troubles aren't over with this case. She faces a separate trial on perjury charges stemming from accusations that she didn't report gifts from Lipscomb.

Lipscomb told a grand jury that he once gave Dixon $4,000 after the Chicago shopping spree. Dixon apparently used the money to pay her American Express bill.

Rohrbaugh said he is going to continue to pursue the perjury case against the mayor.

Arnold M. Weiner, Dixon's lead defense attorney, said that "all things are being considered" for their next move, and they planned to file post-trial motions. The jury deliberations continued "beyond the point that we believe to be appropriate," he said.

In a statement, Gov. Martin O'Malley also said it was a sad day for Baltimore, but that its citizens should stay focused on day-to-day matters.

"It is more important than ever, during this difficult time, that everyone who cares about Baltimore stays focused on reducing crime in our neighborhoods, improving our schools, creating jobs and otherwise serving the people who live and work in Baltimore," he said.

Prosecutors painted a picture of a corrupt official going on personal shopping sprees and described a collection of electronics found during the raid of her home: an Xbox, a PlayStation 2 and a video camera. A DVD of the action crime film, "Four Brothers," was still in its original wrapping, Rohrbaugh said during opening statements, receipts dangling from his hand.

Dixon's lawyers blamed the case on Lipscomb, a married man who they said lavished her with gifts, including gift cards sent anonymously, as he pursued her romantically. Dixon thought gift cards delivered anonymously by another developer also came from Lipscomb, the defense argued.

Dixon's defense team called just four witnesses, including the mayor's pastor and a florist who testified about an anonymous, $285 bouquet sent by Lipscomb. Her attorneys argued she thought some of the gift cards were intended as personal gifts, while others, found in her home, were forgotten leftovers from a charity event.

Under state law, Dixon would be suspended at sentencing if the conviction is related to her official duties. She would be removed permanently if she loses all her appeals. City Council President Stephanie Rawlings-Blake is in line to be elevated to the mayor's office, and remaining council members would pick a new president.

Rawlings-Blake said in a statement Tuesday afternoon that it is a "difficult and sad day for Baltimore." She said she was making sure that public safety and essential public services are maintained. The council president also urged respect for the legal process.

Dixon, 55, has been under the cloud of the City Hall corruption probe for nearly four years, since she was City Council president. She was indicted in January. Still, she remains popular in Maryland's largest city of about 630,000 residents.

Dixon became Baltimore's first African-American woman mayor when she succeeded O'Malley in January 2007 after he was elected governor. She easily won a four-year term in November 2007.

She was praised during her first year in office for tackling crises swiftly, and her police commissioner, Frederick H. Bealefeld III, oversaw a drop in homicides to a 20-year low. Dixon also has pushed for a "cleaner, greener Baltimore" by introducing a new recycling program. Under her watch, the city sued lending giant Wells Fargo for allegedly singling out black residents for high-interest subprime mortgages, leading to foreclosures and vacant properties.

The gift card case has revived talk of Dixon's perceived sense of entitlement. Her critics point to a pattern of behavior that suggests she thinks rules don't apply to her. When she became City Council president in 1999, the state ethics commission advised her to step down from her part-time state government job, saying it raised potential conflicts of interest. Dixon kept the second job for more than two years.

She also steered city business to a company that employed her sister. And the city paid Dixon's campaign chairman, without a contract, to do computer work at City Hall.

Dixon, a divorced mother, is known for chic attire and a quick temper. During a 1991 debate at City Hall on redistricting, she caused a stir when she took off one of her shoes, held it up and told white City Council members: "Now the shoe is on the other foot."

Shoes came back to haunt her during the City Hall probe. Prosecutors said during the investigation that she bought a $570 pair of Jimmy Choo sandals while in Chicago with Lipscomb in 2004.

During the trial, her relatives, some City Council members and members of the city's business community attended to show their support.

The Maryland Minority Contractors Association Inc. printed bumper stickers reading, "Save our Sisters," in support of Dixon and City Councilwoman Helen Holton, who is criminally charged with taking contributions that exceed campaign finance limits -- including contributions from Lipscomb.

Lipscomb made an illegal campaign contribution to Holton. The conviction will be expunged if he stays out of further legal trouble.

The nine women and three men on the jury had signaled Monday that they were stymied on one or more charges against the mayor, before abruptly changing course and asking the judge to let them resume deliberations this morning.

After the jury forewoman dispatched a note Monday afternoon declaring that the jurors "can not come to a unanymous [sic] decision on all counts," Sweeney prepared to inquire whether they had reached a verdict on any of the five counts. But before he could put the question to them, the forewoman sent another note to the packed courtroom, asking for more time.

"We feel that we need to return tomorrow to continue deliberations, due to new things brought to light," the note read. There was no elaboration.

Sweeney told the lawyers that he would give the jurors no special instructions this morning.

As he dismissed the jurors Monday, Sweeney told them, "We're taking our guidance based on your last note. ... Come back tomorrow morning and we will take it from there."

Some nodded in response to Sweeney's typical admonition to refrain from outside investigation, discussion and media reports about the case, but they otherwise showed no emotion.

It was the jury's first reference to discord since the second day of deliberations, Nov. 20. At the end of the first and second days, jurors referred to their discussions as "out of order" and "overheated." However, by the end of Day Two, jurors had twice reported "progress" in notes to the judge.

Since then, they had inquired about legal definitions and reviewed a video recording of three witnesses testifying.

Dixon's defense team renewed its motion for a mistrial several times Monday and opposed all communication between the judge and the jury.

"Time itself has become the most coercive factor," said Dale P. Kelberman, a Dixon attorney. In response to the note about "new things brought to light," Weiner argued that the jury must be referring to information they'd learned outside of the trial, which is forbidden.

Sweeney, a retired Howard County judge who is considered a jury expert in the state, denied all mistrial requests. He said there was no need to apply "lawyer-like precision" to the phrase "new things brought to light," saying it could mean anything.

Rohrbaugh urged the judge to let the jury keep deliberating.

"They must have some game plan," he said of the jurors. He added, "I'm not sure why" they would want to quit for the day without hearing the judge's response to the note about not being able to reach a unanimous decision.

Weiner said after court that the jury "seemed not to be able to reach a verdict but decided to give it one final try tomorrow." Rohrbaugh said he had "no idea" what the jury's notes could mean.

The two substantive notes from the jury forewoman arrived at 3:15 and 3:45 p.m. Monday. Earlier, jurors had sent at least three notes with typical requests, to take a break and to use their cell phones, which are not allowed in the jury room. One note, which a court spokesman characterized as containing "personal information" about a juror, was not made public.

Associated Press writers David Dishneau and Alex Dominguez contributed to this article.

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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