Baltimore Mayor Sheila Dixon should stand trial on charges that she perjured herself by not disclosing gifts from a developer boyfriend, a judge ruled Monday as he rebuffed objections from the mayor's defense team that the accusations rest on faulty evidence.
The decision sets up the prospect that Dixon will face a pair of trials in the months ahead - one scheduled for November on charges that she stole gift cards intended for the needy, and another later on two perjury counts.
"It is not good news from the standpoint of her being able to govern," said Donald F. Norris, chairman of the Department of Public Policy at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County. "She is now going to be in two separate trials at two separate times."
Dixon's lawyers had attempted to have the perjury charges dismissed, arguing that prosecutors could not prove their case because the evidence they wanted to use - knowledge Dixon gained about development projects through meetings as City Council president - could not be used against her based on a principle known as "legislative immunity."
But in a 10-page memorandum accompanying his order, Circuit Judge Dennis M. Sweeney wrote that he was "not satisfied" with defense arguments that Dixon's rights were so violated as to merit the "extraordinary step" of dismissing the charges.
State Prosecutor Robert A. Rohrbaugh said he is "pleased" with the decision and said the case is now "ready for trial."
Dixon appeared unruffled by yesterday's ruling and, after presenting a proclamation to advocates for the disabled at City Hall, she said: "I'm just going to continue to do what I am doing." The mayor complimented her lawyers and added that "I'm going to be victorious in the end." She then hosted her regular lunch for members of the City Council.
Asked how long she expects the legal saga to continue, Dixon referred the question to the state prosecutor, saying, "I don't know, you'll have to ask him."
Norris said that the mayor appears to be "soldiering on" and reacting well to daily crises, but he's not seen bold new initiatives come out of City Hall. The lack of new ideas, though, could be due to the budget crisis and not legal distractions, he said.
Dixon lawyer Dale P. Kelberman said that the defense team is weighing whether to appeal Monday's ruling. "We think we have a good argument," Kelberman said. Dixon's attorneys have 30 days to seek a rare legal move known as an interlocutory appeal, where attorneys ask an appeals court to overrule a trial judge before the trial is over.
"The courts almost never do that, because if they did, everyone would be running off to the appellate court in every case and we would never get anything done," said University of Baltimore law professor Byron Warnken. He said the maneuver would put a "tremendous burden" on the mayor's counsel to convince the appeals court that the case should be taken.
The two perjury charges stem from an accusation that Dixon failed to report gifts on city ethics forms - cash, travel and clothes - from former boyfriend Ronald H. Lipscomb, whom Dixon dated in 2003 and 2004 and who received millions of dollars worth of city tax credits for his development projects.
In order to prove the charges, prosecutors must show that Dixon knew that Lipscomb was doing business with the city.
In May, Sweeney dismissed similar charges against Dixon, agreeing that prosecutors improperly used privileged material when they initially asked a grand jury to indict her in January. The prosecutors had in that instance used votes she cast on tax credits to show she was aware of Lipscomb's city work.
Those votes are protected acts, and cannot be used against her in criminal cases, Sweeney found.
Prosecutors went back to a grand jury and in July secured new indictments on perjury charges using different evidence - showing that she was aware of Lipscomb's work with the city via meetings and newspaper articles about the projects. Evidence includes a color photograph of then-City Council President Dixon standing next to construction equipment and men in hard hats at the groundbreaking of Lipscomb's Frankford Estates project in East Baltimore. Lipscomb can be seen in the background.
The prosecutors also showed a Baltimore Sun article during an earlier court hearing in which Dixon was quoted saying she "twisted some arms" to ensure the East Baltimore project included the 170 houses that the neighborhood leaders wanted.
The mayor's attorneys had contended that photo from the ceremony and evidence from the meetings were protected because they were settings in which legislation was discussed.
They also point to grand jury testimony in which Lipscomb said that he never spoke with Dixon about legislation or his city development projects outside official meetings.
In rejecting their argument, Sweeney wrote that even if there were a violation of Dixon's rights to protected speech, "it can hardly be seen as pervasive or dominant, and it would not be appropriate for the court to invade the grand jury's jurisdiction and dismiss an otherwise valid indictment."
"The better course would be to correct any error by not admitting the offending evidence at trial," Sweeney wrote.
Rohrbaugh said he was not concerned that evidence could be tossed out. "At this point, we are not sure what evidence we will be using," he said.
Separately, Sweeney also rejected the defense arguments that the prosecutors used an overly vague interpretation of the city's ethics code to support the perjury charge.
The trial on theft charges is set for Nov. 9. No date has been set for the perjury case.