10:39 AM EDT, October 29, 2012
Call it the Sheila Dixon amendment.
Although it was actually written in response to another corrupt Maryland politician who didn't know when to give up her hold on elective office, Question 3 on next week's ballot speaks directly to the turmoil Baltimore's gift card-stealing former mayor created in the weeks after she was found guilty in 2009. After years of scandal and a lengthy trial on theft and other misconduct charges, Ms. Dixon was found guilty by a jury of her peers in early December of that year. She was back in her office in City Hall the next day, and she showed no signs of leaving.
Maryland's constitution has long included a provision to force out politicians who are convicted of felonies or certain misdemeanors related to their official duties, and there was little debate that soliciting gift cards for an annual mayoral Christmas charity and then using them to buy expensive trinkets for herself and her family qualified.
However, there is a catch. A decades-old attorney general's opinion, which has never been tested in court, held that a "conviction" technically only occurs at the point of sentencing, and that, at best, would not happen for weeks, and given the aggressiveness of Ms. Dixon's legal team, perhaps not for much longer than that. Even after the sentencing, Ms. Dixon would have been suspended from her duties pending the final outcome of all of her appeals, and had the conviction eventually been overturned, she could have returned to office.
Baltimore could not afford such a lengthy period of instability, and Ms. Dixon's refusal to do the right thing — apologize and resign — gave her perverse leverage. More than a month after the end of her trial, then-State Prosecutor Robert Rohrbaugh agreed to a deal in which Ms. Dixon agreed to plead guilty (though without actually acknowledging her guilt) and resign her office — but to keep her $83,000 a year pension.
If Question 3 had been in effect at the time, we might have avoided all of that. What it does is to change the provision in the state constitution such that a politician, state or local, is suspended from office at the moment he or she is found guilty by a jury and is automatically removed either when the appeals process is exhausted or when he or she pleads guilty or no contest.
In Ms. Dixon's case, that would have meant that she would have been suspended immediately upon the jury's verdict, and then-City Council President Stephanie Rawlings-Blake would have automatically taken over. The amendment does not directly speak to the question of whether an official like Ms. Dixon would be able to keep her pension, which is controlled by local law, but it is likely that she would have lost it as well.
The city code strips elected officials of their pensions if they are convicted of job-related crimes, but because of the terms of Ms. Dixon's plea deal, she was not, technically, "convicted." Mr. Rohrbaugh made the unpleasant but not unreasonable choice that it was more important to get Ms. Dixon out of office and to restore ethical leadership to City Hall than it was to make sure she did not receive her pension. If Question 3 had been in effect, that would not have been an issue.
Though Ms. Dixon provides the most vivid and local example of the need for the constitutional change made by Question 3, she is, sadly, not the only one. This amendment was spearheaded by Prince George's Del. Jolene Ivey after former County Councilwoman Leslie Johnson pleaded guilty in the corruption scandal of her husband, former Prince George's Executive Jack Johnson, but initially refused to step down from office. But it might just as easily apply to former Anne Arundel County Councilman Daryl Jones, who was found guilty of tax evasion and sought to stay in office even while he served a five month prison sentence. Or to Prince George's Del. Tiffany Alston, who was found guilty of stealing money from the General Assembly to pay a worker in her private law office and who also faced charges of stealing money from her campaign account to help pay for her wedding. She is now suspended from the legislature, but given the state of the law and the terms of a plea deal she agreed to, it's possible that she may eventually try to reclaim her seat.
Sad to say, there are few matters on the ballot for which the need has been so amply demonstrated as this one. We urge Marylanders to vote in favor of Question 3.
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