January 10, 2010
Sheila Dixon made history - the first woman elected mayor of Baltimore, and apparently the nation's first female big-city mayor to resign over criminal charges. Her trial took place in the courthouse where, in 1973, a vice president of the United States (and former Maryland governor and Baltimore County executive) named Spiro T. Agnew pleaded no contest to tax evasion in connection with thousands of dollars in kickbacks and bribes gladly taken during all but one of his 11 years in elected office.
Ted Agnew was a much bigger crook than Sheila Dixon.
But I thought of him Wednesday, outside the Spiro Memorial Courthouse on Calvert Street, because, for one thing, both he and the mayor of Baltimore got wrist-slaps (no jail time) in return for their resignations. "The bigger they are, the harder they fall" was how some defended Mr. Agnew's plea deal, and that was certainly a factor in the state's deal with Ms. Dixon: Leave office, and the judge will give you probation before judgment; you won't have a conviction on your record, and you'll get to keep your fabulous pension.
The last part, about the pension, really sticks in the collective craw.
My e-mail boxes are full of angry letters about Ms. Dixon's retirement package being left intact. The deal to resolve this case and get Ms. Dixon out of office seems to have sparked more public emotion than the mayor's transgressions.
In 2006, this newspaper published plenty of stories about Ms. Dixon that should have troubled any city voter.
As City Council president, she had hired her sister to work in her office, a violation of the ethics code. She steered no-bid government work worth hundreds of thousands of dollars to her former campaign chairman. She pushed Comcast to farm out some work to a subcontractor who employed her sister.
Smelly stuff, but the city ethics commission did nothing and, 18 months later, Baltimoreans went to the polls and made Ms. Dixon mayor.
Then, by 2008, we were hearing about furs from a former boyfriend who was a city developer, and that sounded titillating. But it didn't send the citizens with pitchforks and torches to City Hall, did it?
In fact, a lot of people felt Ms. Dixon's privacy was being violated by a Republican-appointed prosecutor on a witch hunt.
Then the indictment came, and the charge that Sheila Dixon had taken gift cards intended for needy families and children.
That sounded pretty bad, but until the trial started, none but cynics were convinced that Ms. Dixon was a crook. Ethically challenged maybe, but not a thief. A lot of Baltimoreans scoffed at the charges: Is that all they've got, a few hundred bucks in gift cards?
But, in time, charges that seemed to have been knitted from flimsy, stretch material became firm and infuriating.
Sheila Dixon essentially had conducted a shakedown of a city developer to get gift cards out of him, on the premise that they would go to charity, and then used them herself. This from the mayor of a city with nearly 20 percent of its population living in poverty, well above the national rate of 13 percent.
When the state prosecutor, Robert Rohrbaugh, slapped down, one by one, 19 gift cards along the wooden rail in front of the jury box, he had played his best hand.
With this picture clearly painted, and with the guilty verdict, more Baltimoreans came over to the Sheila-must-go side.
But it wasn't until Wednesday, when the deal became public - with her $83,000 annual pension intact - that public anger seemed to reach a boiling point. Now I have people calling me to ask what they can do about keeping that pension away from Citizen Dixon.
That brought to mind Spiro Agnew again. Eight years after he resigned and left town for sunny California, Maryland taxpayers went after him. A lawsuit seeking to recover the past kickbacks and bribes resulted in a court ordering Mr. Agnew to pay the state $248,735, and he did.
That sort of thing probably won't happen with Ms. Dixon's pension. Laws and contracts will protect it, and she'll get to share it with her lawyers.
But people won't forget. If Sheila Ann Dixon ever comes around looking for votes again, voters will remember how she got off, and got off with her pension. That, perhaps more than her sticky fingers for gift cards, will stick in the collective craw for a long time.
Dan Rodricks' column appears Thursdays and Sundays in print and online, and Tuesdays online-only. He is host of the Midday talk show on WYPR-FM.
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