Former Mayor Sheila Dixon plans to kick off a local foundation's speaker series next month as she weighs a possible return to politics, having completed probation on the criminal conviction that forced her from office.

"This is the year I'm going to decide," Dixon said of her desire to run for office again. "I'm not going to hide the fact that I enjoyed what I was doing during my 27 years in public office."

Dixon, who in 2009 was convicted of stealing gift cards intended for the poor, is scheduled to launch this year's Associated Black Charities speaker series April 16. The series, now it its fourth year, also will feature talks in subsequent months by former Legg Mason CEO Mark Fetting and Robert M. Bell, the chief judge of the Maryland Court of Appeals.

Dixon, who is not being paid for the engagement, has not shrunk from public view during her probation, stoking speculation about her future ambitions.

In the 2011 mayoral election, she dispensed advice to candidates opposing Stephanie Rawlings-Blake, who finished Dixon's foreshortened term and then won one of her own. With voter approval in November of changing the mayoral election cycle to coincide with that of the president, Rawlings-Blake's term continues through 2016.

A spokesman for the Associated Black Charities said the former mayor's legal woes will not be a part of the formal part of the program, in which the group's CEO, Diane Bell McKoy, converses with Dixon before an audience at Frederick Douglass-Isaac Myers Maritime Park.

But the issue could be raised during an audience question-and-answer session — or by the speaker herself.

"Knowing Mayor Dixon the way I do, she's a very frank person. She probably will address it," said the spokesman, Anthony McCarthy, who also served in the same capacity for Dixon for a couple of her City Hall years.

"But the purpose for us in this series is to focus on the positive contributions that are being made by this group of speakers. I'm not sure what purposes would be served by us bringing it into the discussion."

While Dixon acknowledges that she "of course" misses public office and is weighing a possible run in the future, she cautioned against reading too much into her upcoming talk.

"That doesn't indicate anything," she said, "except I was asked to speak."

Dixon recently completed the probation she received to settle the criminal case against her.

She was convicted of embezzlement in connection with the gift cards and, rather than go to trial on perjury charges, agreed to resign from office, drop any appeals, perform 500 hours of community service and give $45,000 to charity. Dixon also agreed not to seek city or state office while on probation. In return, she kept an $83,000-a-year pension.

Last fall, Dixon was charged with violating her probation for falling behind on the charitable payments. But after she paid the amount owed, her probation was terminated.

Dixon was back in the news earlier this month when Circuit Judge Dennis M. Sweeney sentenced another politician, former Anne Arundel County Executive John R. Leopold, for misconduct in office.

Sweeney, who presided over Dixon's trial as well, sentenced Leopold to a month in prison. The judge questioned whether fines, probation and community service are enough to deter public officials from misdeeds — an apparent reference to Dixon.

In recent years, Dixon has attended ceremonies for projects that her administration propelled, such as the redevelopment of Uplands in Southwest Baltimore, and she has been a guest on programs such as WMAR-TV's "Square Off."

And, about a year ago, she agreed to be the subject of a comedy roast to benefit a charity where she had worked to fulfill some of her community service requirement.

Dixon said she was given a list of questions that McKoy will ask, including ones dealing with leadership, family and "defining moments" in her life.

The talk is open to the public, at $30 a ticket, or $150 for the series of five speakers. McCarthy said the charitable group sees the speaker series as an opportunity for young professionals in its "pipeline leadership development" program to network and learn from prominent members of the community.

Other speakers this year include University of Maryland law professor Larry Gibson and tech expert Mario Armstrong.

Political observer Matthew Crenson said a Dixon return to elective politics is "not out of the realm of possibility."

"Look at Marion Barry in Washington, with much more serious baggage than Sheila Dixon has," said Crenson, a Johns Hopkins professor emeritus of political science.

Barry was mayor of Washington when he was convicted of possession of cocaine; he served six months in prison and was ultimately elected mayor again.

But Crenson said Dixon, who has remained largely unrepentant about her conviction, would have to address the issue if she were to run for office.

"She couldn't avoid it then," said Crenson.

More than half of the respondents to a poll conducted by The Baltimore Sun in 2011 said they approved of the job Dixon did as mayor. But a similar number said they would not vote her back into office.

Crenson, however, said that a poll conducted today could well get a different result, particularly if the question pitted Dixon against an actual rather than hypothetical opponent.

Donald F. Norris, chairman of the public policy department of the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, said it's hard to tell if Dixon's upcoming talk signals a move toward returning to elective politics — until we hear what she has to say.

"I would be listening for some indication that she is repentant for what happened," he said, "and recognition that she'd made some mistakes."

Norris said that Dixon still has supporters in town, but whether their numbers are sufficient to return her to office would depend on a number of factors — what office she might seek, her opponent and "the extent of people's memories."

Norris, however, said if Baltimore voters return Dixon to office, it would send the wrong signal.

"It would say to the outside world that a corrupt elected official can spend a little time away and get re-elected," Norris said. "That's not an image Baltimore wants, or that any city needs."

jean.marbella@baltsun.com

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A previous version of this article gave the wrong price for an individual ticket to former Mayor Sheila Dixon's speaking engagement. The Baltimore Sun regrets the error.

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