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Nothing says 'I love you' like an anonymous envelope of gift cards

Justice SystemFootballEthicsBest Buy Co., Inc.Values

Now here's a courting ritual perfect for a big-city mayor: Leave $1,000 in Target and Best Buy gift cards in a plain envelope -- no note, no name -- at her office in City Hall.

It might look fishy, especially if the guy dropping off the cards is a big developer doing business with the city. But at her trial Thursday, Sheila Dixon's defense claimed that what looks like corruption was actually romance, with a mad-cap mix-up thrown in.

The mix-up is this: Dixon assumed the gift cards delivered to her office in December 2005 were from Ronald Lipscomb, her one-time boyfriend. In fact, they came from Patrick Turner.

Both men are developers doing business with the city. Both provided Dixon with gift cards that they say were meant for the poor but that even Dixon's defense concedes she spent on herself, friends and family.

Dixon was only romantically involved with one of the developers, Lipscomb. And it seems her main defense is the boyfriend defense, which goes like this: Dixon was entitled to use Lipscomb's cards because he meant them to be gifts, not charity.

So how does she explain spending Turner's cards?

Dixon defense attorney Arnold Weiner said that when Turner's cards turned up in City Hall, she just assumed they were an anonymous little love offering from Lipscomb. That's so Ron! He was always sending elaborate floral arrangements to Dixon's office, no names attached, Weiner said.

Weiner suggested that was Lipscomb's way of adding a little mystery to their romance. Just a bonus, I suppose, that the no-name flowers would also give Dixon and Lipscomb cover from the Board of Ethics, to say nothing of their respective spouses.

If the cards really were gifts, Dixon should have disclosed them on her city ethics form, which she did not do. But no worries! Because the case against Dixon was split in two, there are no charges in this trial related to her failure to disclose gifts.

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When she wasn't spending gift cards on herself, Dixon was playing Santa with them, handing them out to City Hall staff at the office Christmas party, prosecutors claim.

One of the more interesting re-gifting moments alleged: That Dixon took a Giant supermarket gift card she'd gotten from ex-boyfriend Lipscomb and gave it to Edward Anthony, whom State Prosecutor Robert Rohrbaugh described in court as Dixon's "longtime close friend."

Rohrbaugh also noted that Anthony works in the city Housing Department, where he's "some division chief" -- suggesting that the gifts just keep coming.

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There were tears in the hallway outside the courtroom just after opening statements, and they sure weren't flowing from steely Sheila.

It was Barry Gogel, a member of Dixon's defense team. Why the waterworks?

Gogel's parents, Eugene and Jean Gogel of Pikesville, had come to see him in court -- something they'd never done before. Mom got him crying by evoking her late father, Louis Frank, who worked for many years as a stenographer in the same courthouse.

"I said, 'Poppy would be very proud,'" Jean Gogel told me later.

Gogel wiped his eyes and went back into the courtroom.

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The bottom of the sales receipt reads: "Sheila, thank you for using your Reward Zone card."

The message comes from Best Buy, where Dixon had just used gift cards to buy a $460 Xbox 360 Need for Speed with extended warranty. But the thank-you could just as easily have come from state prosecutors.

By using her Reward Zone bonus points card, Dixon turned an otherwise anonymous transaction into a traceable one. Same goes for the times she spent other gift cards and used her Visa or AmEx to cover part of the tab.

"Usually there's no record" when someone uses a gift card to pay for purchases, prosecutor Rohrbaugh said. The bonus card is "how the whole thing began to unravel."

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A reader who goes by H.G.H. wants to know: "Is it true that City Hall telephoned Weiner's office to ask if legal fees can be paid in gift cards?" ... When they raided Dixon's home in June 2008, prosecutors turned up at least one gift card that was purchased by the city Housing Department and was supposed to have been distributed to poor children at the mayor's 2007 Holley Trolley tour. Making matters worse: The pink bag the card turned up in. "That's not a bag you give little children gift cards from," Rohrbaugh told the jury. "That's a Victoria's Secret bag."

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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