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Highest court upholds dismissal of bribery charges vs. Holton

City Councilwoman Helen Holton's three-year battle against allegations of bribery and perjury came to a close Wednesday as Maryland's highest court upheld a Baltimore judge's decision to dismiss the most serious charges against her.

The 5-2 ruling Wednesday ends the case against the West Baltimore Democrat, whom state prosecutors had accused of accepting $12,500 for a campaign poll from a pair of developers in exchange for voting on tax breaks for their Harbor East project.

"At long last, justice is done and this ordeal is over. It's over," Holton said Wednesday. "If not for my faith and my trust in God, I would not have made it through this public persecution."

Holton, a councilwoman since 1995, said she believed she would have been exonerated if the bribery case had gone to trial. "I was not bribed. My vote has never ever been for sale, never ever," said Holton, who is running for re-election to the council in November. "That's not the person that I am."

Holton pleaded no contest last year to a campaign finance violation, a misdemeanor for which she was required to pay a $2,500 fine.

The Court of Appeals ruled Wednesday that a Baltimore City circuit judge was right to dismiss the more serious charges against her because the only evidence that she had granted the tax breaks to the developers were her official actions as chairwoman of the council's taxation and finance committee.

The majority cited the principle in state and federal law known as "legislative immunity," which prevents a lawmaker's official actions from being used as evidence against him or her.

State prosecutors had appealed the lower court's ruling, questioning whether the law applied to legislators at the local level. The Court of Appeals ruled that it did.

Holton was indicted by a grand jury in 2009 as part of the corruption probe that led to the resignation of Mayor Sheila Dixon.

The charges against Holton stemmed from the 2007 city campaign. Holton, an accountant, was contemplating a run for comptroller. Prosecutors alleged that Holton had asked developers John S. Paterakis and Ronald Lipscomb to pay for a $12,500 poll in return for tax breaks on their Harbor East development.

In the bribery case, prosecutors presented as evidence Holton's committee votes in favor of millions of dollars of tax breaks for the project.

Paterakis, who heads the H&S Bakery conglomerate, and Lipscomb, who partnered with Paterakis on development projects and had had a romantic relationship with Dixon, accepted plea deals in 2009 that required them to pay $25,000 in fines and perform community service. They are barred from contributing to campaigns until their probation ends next year.

Holton pleaded no contest in October to a misdemeanor campaign finance violation for receiving the $12,500 donation from the developers. State law limits individual campaign donations to $4,000 per election cycle.

The bribery case against Holton was hobbled by a lack of key evidence. Prosecutors did not present any evidence that Holton had supported the tax breaks other than her actions in council committee, which are protected by legislative immunity.

In the majority opinion, the appeals court judges wrote that lawmakers should not be fearful of criminal consequences when casting votes.

"They must enjoy the same ability to speak and act in their legislative capacities, without fear of retribution, either criminally or civilly, because of what they say or how they vote," they wrote. "They may be called upon to answer for their legislative conduct to the citizens who elected them, which is what democracy is all about, but they may not be compelled to defend their legislative conduct to a prosecutor, to a grand jury or to a court. The record in this case shows that that is precisely what Ms. Holton was asked to do, and the circuit court was correct in not permitting it," they wrote.

The minority countered that dismissing the charges against Holton would hamper the power of grand juries, which are not required to abide by strict rules concerning evidence.

"Allowing dismissal of the indictment on the ground that it contains on its face recitation of, or reference to, privileged legislative activities opens the door to the diminished significance of grand jury proceedings," Judge Glenn T. Harrell Jr. wrote in the dissent.

State Prosecutor Emmet C. Davitt, who was appointed to his position after the charges were brought against Holton, said he was "disappointed" in the decision. "Obviously, we respect the court's ruling," he said. While his office would review the decision, he said prosecutors were unlikely to appeal it to the Supreme Court.

Joshua Treem, Holton's attorney, said the court's decision was "right on the money."

"Every local legislator in the state can take comfort in what Miss Holton has done at the local court and the appellate court level," he said.

The principle of legislative immunity, also known as the "speech and debate clause," is designed to protect representatives from frivolous litigation. "The idea … is that legislators should be free to express their best judgment without concern that they would be sued civilly or charged criminally for their official acts," said Steven H. Levin, a former federal prosecutor.

Andrew I. Alperstein, a defense attorney and former prosecutor, said the law might seem "unfair to regular people who see it as a lot of technical stuff."

"It's a statute that's well-meaning, but my guess is it probably just didn't anticipate this set of facts," he said.

Alperstein said it was unusual to see the statute invoked to dismiss an indictment. Generally, the law is used to bar the admission of certain evidence.

While it makes sense to protect the ability of lawmakers to speak freely, Alperstein said, the state General Assembly might want to narrow the law so that it would not prevent similar cases from going to trial in the future.

"I'm sure it wasn't designed to allow local officials to use it as a shield against criminal wrongdoing," Alperstein said.

Political observers said it was unlikely that the legal battle would derail Holton's re-election bid. She was one of several council members who endorsed and were endorsed by Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake last week.

Matthew Crenson, a professor emeritus of political science at the Johns Hopkins University, said the resolution of the case a little less than two months before the Democratic primary would bolster Holton's campaign.

"I think she becomes considerably less vulnerable now," he said.

Moreover, said Crenson, voter apathy would benefit Holton and other incumbents.

"This has been so far a really desultory campaign," he said. "The voters seem to be half-asleep, and I suspect the turnout will be very low and that's always good for the incumbent."

But at least two of Holton's challengers in the 8th District council race said they believed the district needed a representative who had not been the subject of an ethics probe.

"It's an issue that's coming up in every part of the district I've been through," said David Maurice Smallwood, who came in second to Holton in 2007 and is running again this year. "[People] are saying they want change and they're tired of corruption."

Haki Shakur Ammi, a city firefighter who is also challenging Holton, said he thought she should have resigned when the probe began.

"People already have negative attitudes about Baltimore being corrupt and crime-infested, that everyone is bought and paid for," he said. "I believe she should have resigned because of the negative publicity"

Holton shrugged off their criticisms, saying that she has always strived to represent the district well.

"I have continued to do my job since day one," she said.

Holton said her legal victory would benefit all city and county lawmakers in the state.

"In many respects, this has set a precedent for all the local legislators in the state of Maryland so that they can do their work for the people without fear that a prosecutor is going to come along and indict you for doing your job," Holton said.

julie.scharper@baltsun.com

http://twitter.com/juliemore

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