Mayor Sheila Dixon's lead attorney told jurors in her criminal theft case Thursday that Dixon spent gift cards donated by city developers for one simple reason: She thought they were meant as gifts for her.
That line of defense is likely to turn the trial into a credibility contest between Dixon and developer Ronald H. Lipscomb, her former boyfriend, who is expected to testify that the cards were intended for use by poor families at Christmas.
The defense statement, a highlight of the first day of testimony, appeared designed to blunt the prosecution's effort to connect the mayor to purchases made with the cards.
State Prosecutor Robert A. Rohrbaugh, in his opening statement, described in detail the trail of evidence painstakingly assembled by investigators. To punctuate his words, he slapped stacks of plastic gift cards on the edge on the jury box and unfurled store receipts of Dixon's purchases.
"When you are a public official, it is a breach of the public trust when you steal," Rohrbaugh said. "When you are a public servant and you steal from the needy, it is unspeakable."
Minutes later, Dixon's side seemed to sweep past the prosecution statement, with a new contention that Dixon thought she had the right to the use the cards for her own benefit.
The defense statement marked a shift from a previous line of argument by her attorneys, as laid out in pre-trial motions, that the mayor had used the cards in error. As late as Thursday morning, Shelly S. Glenn, a senior assistant state prosecutor, said in court that the prosecution was expecting an "oops defense" by the mayor, meaning that she spent the cards by mistake.
Lead defense attorney Arnold M. Weiner told the jury that the mayor would not dispute the fact that she used the gift cards given to her by Lipscomb and another developer. As Dixon listened, occasionally resting her chin on her hand or scribbling notes on a pad, Weiner used much of his 30-minute opening statement to disparage Lipscomb and his construction company, Doracon Contracting.
Lipscomb was pursuing Dixon romantically and lavishing her with gifts, sometimes anonymously, Weiner said. Lipscomb attached himself to Dixon's group of friends and even followed her to Boston, Weiner said. The stacks of $50 and $25 gift cards that he gave her in 2005 and 2006 were no different from furs and designer clothes that she accepted from him, the lawyer said.
Weiner said that another batch of gift cards she is charged with misusing, donated in December 2005 by developer Patrick Turner, had arrived at Dixon's office in a blank envelope. She assumed that they were also a gift from Lipscomb, to be used as she saw fit, her lawyer said.
"This case is not about if Sheila Dixon used gift cards," thundered Weiner. "What this is about is how they were given to her and her reasonable belief that she had a right to use them."
Lipscomb said in grand jury testimony that a staff member from Dixon's office called him to request $25 and $50 gift cards from Best Buy, Old Navy and Giant. The $25 cards, he told the grand jury, were to go to single mothers and the $50 cards were for larger families.
Dixon has been under investigation since March 2006, when she was City Council president. The Democratic mayor was indicted in January and faces seven theft-related counts in the current trial.
If convicted on any of the charges, Dixon, 55, would have to step down as mayor and forfeit her $83,000 annual pension. She could also be fined or face jail time.
Separately, she is charged with two perjury counts for not reporting gifts from Lipscomb, who benefited from city contracts and tax credits. That trial is scheduled to begin in March.
Because prosecutors split the charges against the mayor into separate indictments, it made it possible for Dixon's attorneys to argue that she accepted the cards as gifts without running afoul of the law that requires her to publicly disclose any gifts worth more than $50.
"It would have been much more problematic if the jury was also considering perjury counts of failure to report gifts," said David Gray, a University of Maryland law professor. "She couldn't stand up and say, 'These were gifts,' without putting herself on the hook for the perjury counts."