Baltimore City Councilwoman Helen L. Holton's on-again, off-again criminal trial is back on, after a judge's ruling that portends a steady flow of court action in the City Hall corruption case through the remainder of the year.
A Circuit Court judge ruled Thursday that campaign finance charges against Holton should stand, meaning her trial will go forward Dec. 7.
It marked the second time this week that Judge Dennis M. Sweeney, who is overseeing four City Hall corruption cases brought by the state prosecutor, slapped down defense arguments. He ruled Monday that two perjury charges against Mayor Sheila Dixon should go forward.
It was also a sharp reversal of fortunes for Holton, who was jubilant over the summer when an initial set of bribery charges against her were thrown out on grounds that her actions as a legislator cannot be used against her. Prosecutors are appealing that decision and sought another indictment of lesser campaign finance violation charges, which is now moving ahead.
"We want to go to trial," said Deputy State Prosecutor Thomas M. "Mike" McDonough. "I think it was pretty clear that our position was correct."
A call to Holton's attorney, Joshua Treem, was not returned.
Holton, a West Baltimore Democrat, is accused of conspiring to exceed the campaign finance limits by requesting that developers John Paterakis and Ronald H. Lipscomb pay for a $12,500 political poll for her re-election campaign. State law limits donors to $4,000 per candidate per four-year election cycle.
Holton is also accused of raising campaign money outside the confines of a campaign organization because she requested that the developers pay the pollster directly; the payment therefore was not reported as a donation.
Thursday's ruling means Holton's trial will begin, at the latest, a couple of weeks after the opening of the first of two criminal trials for the city's mayor.
Dixon is set to be tried Nov. 9 on charges that she stole gift cards intended for needy families. McDonough said that prosecutors are setting aside about two weeks for Dixon's theft trial, and they believe Holton's trial will take only a couple of days.
Sweeney's ruling came a day after her lawyers made a highly technical argument about the meaning of the word "or" in an attempt to convince the judge that the city's Circuit Court did not have jurisdiction. Treem argued that the court could hear the case only if two tests were met: that the charge carry a penalty of more than a year in prison and a fine of more than $2,500.
But state prosecutors pointed out that the Circuit Court hears cases where either condition is met, not necessarily both. The charge Holton faces carries a maximum penalty of less than a year imprisonment or a $25,000 fine.
In a one-page memo, Sweeney rejected the defense's line of reasoning, simply saying "The Court believes that the State Prosecutor's arguments are correct."
Holton's defense team also had argued that the state statute on conducting campaign activity outside a campaign organization was unconstitutionally vague. Sweeney rejected that argument, too, but said that prosecutors will have to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that Holton violated the rule in a "knowing" and "willful" manner.
Holton had been indicted in January on bribery charges, accused of accepting the same poll in exchange for shepherding millions of dollars in tax credits for Lipscomb's city projects through the taxation and economic development panel, which she then chaired.
Sweeney dismissed those charges in May, saying they relied on Holton's committee votes, acts that he said are protected by the doctrine of legislative immunity.
Holton responded by sending the following e-mail to supporters: "God that can do anything but fail has found favor with this child of his ... HALLELUJAH! HALLELUJAH! HALLELUJAH!"
In court Wednesday, Holton sat with family members and occasionally read from what appeared to be a Bible. She declined to comment after the proceeding.
Separately, Paterakis and Lipscomb pleaded guilty to exceeding campaign finance limits by funding the poll. Both are cooperating with the state prosecutors as a condition of their pleas and are expected to