Evidence, sympathies could vie in Dixon case

Mayor Sheila Dixon takes part in the Baltimore City Council work luncheon hosted in the mayor's conference room Monday. Photographers and TV camera personnel were kicked out of the meeting by the mayor's staff, but were later allowed back in.
Mayor Sheila Dixon takes part in the Baltimore City Council work luncheon hosted in the mayor's conference room Monday. Photographers and TV camera personnel were kicked out of the meeting by the mayor's staff, but were later allowed back in. (Baltimore Sun photo by Algerina Perna)
Indicted Baltimore Mayor Sheila Dixon's first court hearing is scheduled for three weeks from today, but attorneys have already begun dissecting the case against her, with some outlining bountiful defense options that could prove effective in a largely supportive city.

Her own attorney has already come out swinging against the corruption charges she faces, arguing that the heart of the prosecution is based on a "monstrous legal mistake." But others who have prosecuted white-collar crime called the allegations against her "straightforward" and potentially easy to prove.

Dixon, 55, is scheduled for arraignment Feb. 3 in Baltimore Circuit Court; her attorneys have said they will enter a plea on her behalf so that she doesn't have to appear.

The first Baltimore mayor indicted while in office, Dixon, a Democrat, faces 12 counts of felony theft, perjury, fraud and misconduct in office. She is accused of failing to disclose lavish gifts from a prominent developer who is also an ex-boyfriend, and stealing gift cards that developers donated to her office to be distributed to needy families. Most of the alleged crimes occurred between 2004 and 2006, while she was City Council president.

Warren A. Brown, a defense attorney with about 30 years of experience in front of Baltimore juries, said city residents might view the accusations as "largely forgivable transgressions."

"What the prosecutors are saying is that there was a breach of public trust, but I don't think jurors are going to buy that," he said. "Jurors here tend to render verdicts that represent how they feel about someone, and that may at times be inconsistent with or contrary to Maryland law."

He said Dixon - a black woman in a majority-black city and Baltimore's first female mayor - has a reservoir of good will and is viewed by many as a "humble public servant." In her first two years as mayor, she has focused on ending homelessness, bringing down the city's stubborn homicide rate and cleaning up blighted neighborhoods.

But the facts of the case against her are strong, according to some legal experts.

David Gray, an assistant professor at the University of Maryland School of Law, said the 31-page indictment prepared by State Prosecutor Robert A. Rohrbaugh constructed a detailed timeline to substantiate the theft allegations regarding the gift cards, electronically tracing them to find out when and where they were used.

"It's the kind of evidence that's not open to a lot of interpretation," he said. "The Maryland prosecutor has clearly chosen the best facts for his claims."

Lead Dixon attorney Arnold M. Weiner will probably try to undermine Rohrbaugh's case by alleging the Republican prosecutor is going after Democrats and by calling the evidence dubious, attorneys and legal experts said. But in a 30-minute news conference after the indictment Friday, Weiner also responded to specific allegations.

He said the perjury charges for failing to disclose gifts from developer Ronald H. Lipscomb on her ethics forms were flawed. Weiner displayed a page of Baltimore City Code - Section 2-5 - that he says erases the need for Dixon to report anything she received from Lipscomb.

"This ordinance is very specific," Weiner said, denying that it covers someone like Lipscomb, "who owns a company that in turn has a minority interest in somebody else's company that is run by somebody else."

He chastised Rohrbaugh for overlooking "the most critical sections" of the code.

But Weiner did not mention another section that prohibits acceptance of gifts from "any person" who "has a financial interest that might be substantially and materially affected ... by the performance or nonperformance of the public servant's officials duties."

Lipscomb gave Dixon, then City Council president, more than $15,348 in gifts, including a $2,000 gift certificate to a local furrier, plane fare to Chicago and a stay at a luxe New York City hotel, according to the indictment. Lipscomb owns Doracon Contracting, which had projects that were awarded millions of dollars in city tax breaks about the time he was allegedly giving gifts to the council president.

Lipscomb also has a financial stake in the Harbor East redevelopment project.

Lipscomb was not indicted in the Dixon case. But he and Councilwoman Helen L. Holton were charged by the same prosecutor last week with bribery. He is accused of paying for a $12,500 political poll at Holton's request at a time when she was chairwoman of a council committee overseeing tax incentives.

Those charges came from Rohrbaugh's nearly three-year investigation of alleged City Hall corruption.

Defense attorney Kenneth W. Ravenell, who is representing Lipscomb, said he found the charge that Dixon failed to report gifts from the developer to be "a ridiculous interpretation" of city law.

"It's a legal stretch," Ravenell said, noting that the state prosecutor originally was pursuing bribery charges against Dixon.

Weiner was even more dismissive of allegations that Dixon stole gift cards intended for needy families.

According to the indictment, she used as much as $3,400 in gift cards to buy electronics and other items for herself and her staff. The indictment says she solicited the gift cards from two developers, including Lipscomb, saying they would be distributed in part to underprivileged children at the holidays.

The indictment's only allegation of misconduct after Dixon became mayor in January 2007 involves $25 Toys "R" Us gift cards.

She is accused of giving one to a staff member and of possessing five others that were discovered when state prosecutors raided her West Baltimore home in June. Weiner said the staffer had recently gone through a foreclosure, and he implied that Dixon might have inadvertently kept the others.

While that's a far smaller dollar amount than the alleged Lipscomb gifts, some said that allegation could be the most difficult to overcome at a trial.

Gray, the Maryland law professor, said the charges "play to people's emotions."

Brown, the defense attorney, said the alleged misuse could help prosecutors gain traction with a jury.

The defense team "is in jeopardy of losing good will for the mayor on that one," he said. "You don't steal from the poor. Everyone knows that's wrong."

Baltimore Sun reporter Stephen Kiehl contributed to this article.