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Gift cards and sloppy accounting at City Hall

Here's a preview of an editorial we're working on. Let us know what you think. The best comments will appear alongside it in the print edition.

Now that the prosecution and defense have rested in Mayor Sheila Dixon's trial on charges she stole gift cards meant for the poor, at least one thing is certain: The case has painted an unflattering picture of how charity is handled at City Hall. Let's look at some of the facts not in dispute:

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Mayor Dixon called developer Patrick Turner, whose projects benefit from millions in city tax breaks, and asked him to donate gift cards for her to give away to city children. He bought the cards and had them sent to City Hall. Some of them ended up being used by the mayor for her personal use. Her attorney claims they arrived in an unmarked envelope, and she didn't realize they were from Mr. Turner. Of course, she never followed up to find out whether Mr. Turner had sent in the cards, and never acknowledged them in any of the times they've seen each other since. (Mr. Turner said on the stand that she may have sent a thank-you note, but he's not sure.) Yet, a year later, when she called Mr. Turner to make the same request again, he immediately got one of his business partners to comply.

Every year, Mayor Dixon and other city officials conduct a Holly Trolley tour of the city in which they drive to poor neighborhoods and hand out gift cards to the people they meet there, whether they're needy or not. Stacks of gift cards purchased with city funds were handed to Mayor Dixon and others to distribute with no way of knowing whether they actually wound up in the hands of city residents or, as prosecutors discovered, in a Victoria's Secret bag in the mayor's house.

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In at least one case, a city employee who helped run the Holly Trolley tour did succumb to the temptation of all those gift cards. Lindbergh Carpenter Jr., an assistant housing commissioner who helped organize the Holly Trolley, had about 20 Toys "R" Us gift cards left over after the event. He returned them to his office safe but, later, took some of them to purchase a Nintendo Wii. Had state prosecutors not been investigating Mayor Dixon, his theft would likely have never been discovered. He pleaded guilty and lost his job and is still unemployed.

It's a fine thing that the city helps spread holiday cheer to the poor, particularly at a time like this when too many families are going to have to go without. But, as Mr. Carpenter noted on the stand, "there really was no accounting system" for how that charity is conducted. Too much opportunity exists for abuse. If city officials want to continue the Holly Trolley tradition, they need to develop a system tracking exactly where all the gift cards and toys come from, which ones are given to which people to distribute, and who winds up receiving them. We would never accept such lax accounting for public money in any other circumstance.

If the mayor wants to augment the municipal charity with private funds, she needs a much more transparent system than calling up people with millions at stake in business with the city and expecting envelopes of gift cards to show up at her office. How could Mr. Turner, whose Westport project is receiving the largest tax incentive Baltimore has ever approved, say no to the woman with the sole power to make or break the deal? How can the public be assured that the mayor is making decisions about developments and tax breaks based on their merits if she is requesting and receiving thousands of dollars in plastic from the people proposing them? Even if she never used gift cards intended for charity for her personal use, she certainly gets political benefits from playing Santa Claus on the back of the Holly Trolley.

Solicitations like this need to be handled with an arm's length distance between the mayor and people who might do business with the city. They need to be subjected to proper accounting rules and public disclosure through a recognized charitable organization. (We would suggest the Baltimore City Foundation if not for The Sun's report last month exposing inexcusably lax financial controls there, too.)

No matter what decision the jury makes on the question of Mayor Dixon's legal culpability, the public needs to render a verdict on the sloppy way business is conducted at City Hall.

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