Spotlight turns on new evidence in Dixon case

Mayor Sheila Dixon leaves court after a nine-woman, three-man jury was selected for her trial on theft charges.
Mayor Sheila Dixon leaves court after a nine-woman, three-man jury was selected for her trial on theft charges. (Baltimore Sun phtoo by Lloyd Fox)
Revelations that a third city developer might have donated gift cards to Baltimore Mayor Sheila Dixon are more likely to cause political damage than legal harm, observers said.

Circuit Judge Dennis M. Sweeney will consider arguments today by Dixon's lawyers to keep developer Glenn Charlow from testifying that he bought Target gift cards and gave them to the mayor, believing that they would be used for activities at her church.

Dixon is charged with taking gift cards that she solicited on behalf of the city's poor from two other developers - Patrick Turner and former boyfriend Ronald H. Lipscomb - and spending about 60 of them on herself, her family and her friends.

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The allegations regarding gift cards from Charlow, which emerged in a motion filed by her lawyers on Tuesday, had not been previously disclosed and are arising as her trial begins.

"That definitely ups the ante," said Herbert C. Smith, a political science professor at McDaniel College. "It broadens the offense. It creates an atmosphere of 'what is next?' "

David Gray, a University of Maryland law school professor, called the new allegations a "side show" that State Prosecutor Robert A. Rohrbaugh could be using to prejudice the jury against Dixon.

After reviewing a defense motion to suppress the evidence, Gray said the new allegations are being introduced "too late in the game" and surmised that Sweeney would not allow a jury to hear about them.

Dixon has repeatedly proclaimed her innocence.

Charlow could not be reached for comment Wednesday.

The Democratic mayor became testy Wednesday when reporters asked about the new allegations during a Veterans Day event, and she snapped at longtime press aide Ian Brennan, saying, "If you don't get these cameras away ..."

She declined to answer questions about the gift cards, saying she was "not going to allow the media to control this trial."

"You better respect me, and I'm not going to answer any questions," Dixon said. "I don't expect these cameras in front of me. The trial starts tomorrow, and it will go through its process. I don't appreciate it."

According to court documents, Turner requested that Charlow, a longtime business partner, purchase the gift cards in December 2006 and donate them to City Hall. Turner had donated 40 gift cards to Dixon's office in 2005, according to the indictment.

It is not clear from the court filings if or how the newly revealed Target cards were spent. As of late July, a state investigator said he could not "locate the cards or find out who used them," according to court documents. Then, on the eve of the trial, investigators obtained new information from Target about the cards.

"The reason for discovery rules is to prevent exactly this occurrence," Gray said. "There is a deadline for this type of evidence. The deadline is long past."

The new allegations are not in themselves criminal charges, but could be offered as evidence to show a pattern of behavior, Gray said. Using such evidence can be tricky.

"There is a deeply held belief that you cannot be prosecuted for having a bad character," he said.

Doug Colbert, a University of Maryland law professor, said prosecutors have a right to continue investigating up to and during a trial. He suggested that investigators might have had a difficult time obtaining financial records from Target and then might have received them at the last minute.

"I am looking forward to hearing the state's explanation for delay in providing store receipts," he said.

The new allegations "can't help her" but may not be damaging to her political career, said Don Norris, a professor and chairman of the public policy department at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County.

"My view is that none of this matters politically," Norris said. "If she walks out of these two trials acquitted, then she has a much stronger political hand in the city than she did before."

In a separate trial, Dixon is to face perjury charges for failing to disclose on her ethics forms gifts from Lipscomb, who received millions of dollars in city tax credits.

Charlow had not been previously linked to the nearly four-year investigation into City Hall corruption, and is not as well-known as Turner or Lipscomb. He is politically active, however, having given the maximum-allowable contribution of $4,000 to Gov. Martin O'Malley in October 2007, campaign finance records show. He contributed at least $1,000 to Dixon's campaign in June 2003, according to the records.

He has done business with Turner for at least 16 years, selling him the Bagby Furniture Co. in 1993, partnering on a condominium deal in Federal Hill and joining Turner's effort to build the upscale Silo Point condos in Locust Point.

Charlow worked as a broker for the Manekin commercial real estate firm for 13 years until leaving several years ago.

Sweeney could rule today on other motions, including whether the defense will be able to introduce records of Dixon's tithing at Bethel AME Church in West Baltimore, where she has been a longtime member. Prosecution and defense lawyers are expected to make opening statements as well.

Baltimore Sun reporters Julie Scharper and Julie Bykowicz contributed to this article.