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Dixon keeps low profile after conviction

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A day after being convicted of embezzling gift cards for the needy, Mayor Sheila Dixon kept a low profile, remaining for hours at City Hall and ducking reporters' questions at her only public event late in the afternoon.

"I'm not commenting," the mayor said Wednesday when asked about the possibility of resigning. She did not acknowledge another question about whether she would apologize to Baltimore residents for the disruption her trial has caused - a step former Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke and former Rep. Kweisi Mfume have publicly recommended.

In her only substantive comment before wrapping up a brief appearance in South Baltimore to support the Police Department's horse patrol unit, Dixon said she spent the day working on "budget issues, Board of Estimates items, various issues."

Dixon's refusal to discuss her conviction reflected the business-as-usual demeanor coming from City Hall. Top aides described her as focused on her work. They said they aren't preparing for a transfer of power to City Council President Stephanie C. Rawlings-Blake, who would become mayor if Dixon is removed from office.

But crisis management consultants questioned the wisdom of staying mum, even as Dixon's lawyers consider post-trial motions and a possible appeal.

"Failure to talk is a toxic strategy," said James E. Lukaszewski, who reportedly advised Washington Metro officials after a fatal collision this summer. "She can be candid within limits. We all understand she has rights to protect, but she's a public official. She can't not speak."

To salvage her public image, Dixon must apologize, said Mike Paul, president of MGP & Associates PR in New York.

"The only way she can rehabilitate her reputation is by owning her actions," he said. "She has to say, 'Let me explain and open my heart.' It has to be honest, open, contrite, humble. She needs to seek empathy based on truth."

Dixon received a measure of added political support when a City Council member retracted a previous statement and expressed support for the mayor to remain in power.

Spector reverses selfSoon after the verdict was reached Tuesday, Councilwoman Rochelle "Rikki" Spector said, "I don't think she can continue to be mayor." But Wednesday, Spector said she made the comment based on a belief that a guilty verdict would immediately force Dixon out. She later received an e-mail from City Solicitor George Nilson indicating otherwise.

Nilson wrote that the guilty verdict "does not impact" Dixon's responsibility to continue serving as mayor "at this time" - a reference to the notion that formal conviction occurs at sentencing, at which point she could face suspension from her job.

No date for sentencing has been set. Dixon faces penalties ranging from unsupervised probation to five years in prison and, if she is removed from office, she could lose her $83,000 annual pension.

A jury convicted Dixon of embezzling about $500 in gift cards meant for charity, a misdemeanor. The panel cleared her on three other charges and deadlocked on a fifth.

Under the Maryland Constitution, an elected official faces removal from office if convicted of a misdemeanor involving "moral turpitude" that is punishable by jail time. The crime must also be related to the "public duties and responsibilities" of the officeholder.

But legal experts said after the trial that the process for removal is murky and open to interpretation.

Dixon's lead defense attorney, Arnold M. Weiner, said Wednesday that his team spent the day "reviewing the events of the past few weeks and evaluating the current situation."

Weiner said "the rules provide for post-trial motions to be filed within 10 days" but would not say specifically when he might file anything.

Asked about a potential defense strategy that some legal experts had suggested, he did note that the gift cards dated to a time before Dixon became mayor. "It concerned alleged conduct during the time when she held the office of City Council president. I'm not commenting on what the constitutional effect of that might be."

Dixon could face other legal hurdles. The state prosecutor has not said whether he will retry the one charge on which jurors did not render a verdict. And in March she is scheduled to face trial on charges of failing to disclose gifts from her former boyfriend, Ronald H. Lipscomb, a developer who received lucrative city tax incentives.

Dixon's administration has not drawn up any plans for a possible transition of power, said Deputy Mayor Christopher Thomaskutty. "It's way too premature for that kind of thing."

The mayor was "very strong and put together" as she gathered with Cabinet members after Tuesday's verdict, he said, and she urged them to stay focused.

In a meeting Wednesday morning with senior staff members, Dixon discussed the foreclosure of some Clipper Mill properties and a soccer stadium feasibility study.

She was in an "outstanding" mood, "very up, very engaged and joking as she usually does," said First Deputy Mayor Andrew Frank.

"Except for the extraordinary events of yesterday, there is absolutely nothing that feels different at City Hall," he said.

Still, Frank described the mood in City Hall after the verdict as "disappointment and sadness." "The people that work in City Hall have a great degree of affection for the city and the mayor," he said.

Tuesday evening, Dixon attended events in Canton and Fells Point, and later stopped by the Maryland Shock Trauma Center to visit an animal control officer who was shot while working.

Not 'holed up'Dixon spokesman Scott Peterson played down the mayor's light schedule Wednesday, saying some days have more events than others. "In no way is she being holed up or not being out in public."

Peterson added, "No one was expecting this outcome. Everyone has confidence in the mayor's innocence, at least in the mayor's office. You can't dispute a jury ruling; that's not what we're doing. At the same time we have confidence in the mayor."

In Dixon's lone public appearance Wednesday, she visited the Southern District police station in Cherry Hill to cheer on a $5,000 donation for the department's mounted patrol.

Looking at the bank of television cameras, Dixon joked, "It's really great to be here, and it's great that you brought out all the media. I'm impressed."

Baltimore Sun reporter Julie Bykowicz contributed to this article.

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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