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No one is above the law

Dan Rodricks

2:24 PM EST, December 1, 2009

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The jury of her peers took seven days to find the mayor of Baltimore guilty of a charge that prosecutors proved in a few hours of impeccable testimony during her trial -- that she talked a major commercial real estate developer into buying gift cards for needy children, then used them for herself. That part of the state case seemed the most solid, almost like an old-fashioned shakedown by a politician of a mover-and-shaker, except the payoff was gift cards and not cash. Had the jury found Mayor Dixon not guilty of that charge, I would have been shocked.

"That's not something you can do," one of the jurors told reporters outside the courthouse.

And "you" is anyone, the highest elected official in the city included. "Equal justice under the law" is what the state prosecutor, Robert Rohrbaugh had called it. According to testimony, presented thoroughly and concisely by the state a couple of weeks ago, Mayor Dixon and the developer, Patrick Turner, talked on the phone 12 days before Christmas 2005. Mr. Turner did as Ms. Dixon, then our city council president, requested. He bought $500 worth of gift cards from Target, and $500 worth from Best Buy.

There were 20 gift cards in all. When his American Express card statement arrived later with those charges on them, Mr. Turner marked the expenses as "charity." The jury saw that statement and Mr. Turner's notations projected on a large viewing screen in the courtroom. The state proved that Ms. Dixon used 19 of those cards within the next six weeks.

And with no explanation for this in her defense -- having decided not to take the stand to explain this to the jury -- Sheila Ann Dixon now stands guilty of this pathetic crime. She can't be trusted to govern this city honorably. This is a sad day for Baltimore.

After the verdicts were read and the judge dismissed the jury, Mayor Dixon huddled with her attorneys, then carefully wrapped a shawl over her black pinstripe suit, gathered her handbag and walked out of the courtroom. Outside the courthouse, she let her lead attorney, Arnold Weiner, do most of the talking to the press. Ms. Dixon was literally tight-lipped at the start, and to this columnist for a moment she appeared on the verge of tears. When she finally spoke, she said, "The city will continue to run and citizens can feel confident that the city won't miss a step. The city will continue to move forward." She said she had business to tend to, a budget hearing this afternoon.

Asked where she was going – home or back to City Hall – Ms. Dixon pulled her left hand from a pocket, looked at her watch, and said, "I'm going to City Hall."

It would have been fine with a lot of us had she announced she was taking the rest of the day -- and the rest of her term -- off.