Mayor pleads guilty, will receive probation and keep $83,000 pension after resignation Feb. 4; many city leaders express sadness, support Dixon
Surrounded by members of her staff, Baltimore Mayor Sheila Dixon announces that she will resign, part of a plea deal that brought a years-long corruption investigation to a close and ended the tenure of the city's first female mayor.
Dixon, 56, will leave office Feb. 4, the day she is sentenced both for a guilty plea she entered in a perjury case and for her embezzlement conviction last month. She will keep her $83,000 pension, which she could begin collecting the moment she steps down, and her criminal record will be wiped clean if she completes the terms of her probation within four years.
A teary Dixon returned to City Hall to announce her resignation, saying that she was doing so "with deep regret and sadness." She did not apologize but said there would come a time, after sentencing, that she could give her full side of the story.
"I love the city. I love the people of this city," said Dixon, who was raised in West Baltimore, where she still lives. "Now it's time to move on."
The first black woman elected to the City Council presidency, Dixon, a Democrat, has been a public official for 23 years. Now she is barred from seeking or holding any city or state post for at least two years, a condition of her probation.
After Mayor Martin O'Malley was elected governor in 2006, Dixon assumed the city's top job. She was elected in her own right the next fall and has been a popular mayor whose signature programs include recycling, services for the homeless and street repaving.
Dixon will turn over power to City Council President Stephanie C. Rawlings-Blake, a Democrat.
Rawlings-Blake did not attend Dixon's news conference at City Hall. She later released a statement calling this "a sad and difficult time for Baltimore" and vowing a smooth transition of leadership. She did not mention Dixon.
State Prosecutor Robert A. Rohrbaugh said he was satisfied with the outcome of the case, which he said was a good deal for the city.
"It was time for this case to come to an end," he said. "It's time for the city of Baltimore to move forward with a new mayor. This is a disgraced mayor."
The prosecutor, who has been investigating Dixon since March 2006, said the mayor's defense team approached him about a week ago and that plea discussions began in earnest Monday. Other conditions of the agreement include performing 500 hours of community service and donating $45,000 to charity. None of her attorneys' fees can be paid with public money.
Dixon's attorney, Arnold M. Weiner, said Dixon agreed to the deal because she felt she would otherwise "be dragging the city and the people of the city behind her" through what could have been years of court battles.
He also said Dixon's pension was a driving factor.
The agreed-upon sentence of "probation before judgment" in both cases, Weiner said, "was necessary for her to preserve the pension - the very substantial pension that she spent 20-plus years of her life earning and would have been lost were a judgment of conviction entered against her."
Roselyn Spencer, executive director for the city's employee and elected officials retirement systems, said Dixon is eligible to begin collecting her pension immediately upon stepping down.
It was clear in the downtown Baltimore courtroom that Dixon had mixed feelings about her decision.
When presiding Judge Dennis M. Sweeney asked whether she was entering the plea deal voluntarily, Dixon replied, "Basically." Later, as a state prosecutor read aloud the facts of the perjury case, Dixon exclaimed, "Your honor, those things are not true."
But on the perjury charge, Dixon pleaded guilty under the Alford doctrine, meaning that she did not admit guilt but acknowledged that prosecutors had enough evidence to convict her.
That case, which was to go to trial in March, centered on lavish presents from her former boyfriend, developer Ronald H. Lipscomb, in late 2003 and 2004 when she was City Council president. Dixon did not report the gifts, which included a $2,000 gift certificate to a local furrier, shopping sprees and trips to Chicago, New York and Colorado, on her financial disclosure forms, a violation of law punishable by up to 10 years in prison.
Lipscomb had agreed to testify against Dixon as part of his plea deal in a separate City Hall corruption case involving Councilwoman Helen L. Holton, who is accused of violating campaign finance law in allegedly accepting thousands of dollars from Lipscomb and John Paterakis Sr. to pay for a political poll. Paterakis, the baker and developer who bankrolled Harbor East, pleaded guilty to two misdemeanor campaign finance violations and was fined $26,000. Holton's case has not gone to trial.
Dixon was indicted almost one year ago. Those charges were thrown out for technical reasons, and she was reindicted months later on one set of theft-related charges and a pair of perjury charges. She has said little about the cases against her and did not testify at her three-week trial on the theft charges.
On Dec. 1, a jury of 12 Baltimore residents found her guilty of embezzlement, a misdemeanor, for misusing retail gift cards donated for charity by developer Patrick Turner. Dixon spent about $500 in Target and Best Buy cards to purchase a game system and other items for her family and staff members.
Midway through the trial, after prosecutors decided not to call Lipscomb - a man that Dixon's attorneys had vowed to disparage - the judge threw out charges that she had taken retail gift cards he purchased for charity. The jury acquitted Dixon of three of the five remaining charges and could not reach a verdict on a charge that she improperly pocketed several Toys "R" Us gift cards that the city housing department purchased for charity.
As part of Wednesday's plea deal, the prosecutor will not pursue any criminal charges from his investigation of Dixon, and Dixon will not fight the jury conviction.
Wednesday's court hearing was to be a motion for a new trial, as Dixon's defense attorneys said they planned to argue that juror misconduct and improper decisions by the judge led to an unfair trial. Five jurors were brought in to testify about their use of Facebook throughout the trial, and Sweeney asked three lawyers to stand by in case they needed pro bono legal assistance.
But that hearing never began, and by late morning, prosecutors and defense attorneys were meeting privately with the judge to hammer out a plea deal. Sources close to the mayor said she appeared to have reached her decision late Tuesday.
Publicly, Dixon and her attorneys had vowed to fight the jury's guilty finding, which would have forced her from office, but cracks in that stance have been forming. She told The Baltimore Sun in an interview Monday that she was thinking about leaving her office "more now than before."
"It is not the best feeling," Dixon said. "It is a little disappointing."
Few elected officials and city leaders had called for her to resign. O'Malley, a Democrat, had refused to comment on the mayor's situation because it was an active legal proceeding.
The governor released a two-line statement Wednesday that did not mention Dixon. "This is a difficult day in the history of our city. All of us need to support Council President Rawlings-Blake as she takes on the critically important work of leading Baltimore's progress as our new mayor."
Many fellow city leaders continued to support Dixon.
When she delivered her speech, she was flanked by Baltimore Sen. Lisa A. Gladden and city Comptroller Joan M. Pratt. Other city lawmakers in the room, all Democrats, included Sen. Nathaniel J. McFadden and Del. Curtis S. Anderson.
"Mayor Dixon has been very passionate about the mayoral position," Pratt said. "She loves Baltimore and its citizens. She's a hard worker. I believe that the mayor has set a lot of things in place that have been working well for the city."
Baltimore State's Attorney Patricia C. Jessamy said in a statement that she was "personally saddened" by Dixon's decision to resign, calling her "a hard-working public servant who has worked tirelessly for decades to improve Baltimore."
Baltimore Sun reporters Jay Hancock, Liz Kay, Annie Linskey and Julie Scharper contributed to this article.