Dixon scores significant legal victory

Baltimore Mayor Sheila Dixon won a significant legal victory Thursday when a Circuit Court judge dismissed four perjury charges and one misconduct charge against her, saying they were based on improper evidence. Dixon still faces seven other criminal charges, including theft.

The judge, retired Howard County Circuit Court Judge Dennis M. Sweeney, also dropped all criminal charges in a separate case against City Councilwoman Helen L. Holton, who had been indicted for bribery.

Dixon declined comment, telling reporters at an afternoon event in Canton, "You can talk to Arnold Weiner, my attorney."

In a telephone interview, Weiner said he is "analyzing the rulings." Dale P. Kelberman, who also represents the mayor, said he was "very pleased" with the judge's dismissal of the perjury charges.

Councilwoman Holton's reaction was less measured: "God that can do anything but fail has found favor with this child of his ... HALLELUJAH! HALLELUJAH! HALLELUJAH!" she wrote in an e-mail to supporters.

State Prosecutor Robert A. Rohrbaugh said he is "strongly leaning toward" appealing the judge's decision in Holton's case.

As for the dismissed charges against Dixon, Rohrbaugh said his team has to "make some decisions about how we are going to proceed." Options include appealing the decision, re-indicting the mayor using different evidence or going ahead with the trial on the remaining charges. Should he appeal or re-indict, the trial likely would be delayed; it is currently scheduled to begin in September.

Dixon remains charged with theft and misconduct in office for allegedly using gift cards donated by developers and intended for needy children.

She had been indicted for perjury for failing to report on city ethics disclosure forms that she had received gifts from developers Ronald H. Lipscomb and Patrick Turner. Prosecutors asserted that as the council member who had introduced the ethics law, she would have been aware that any gifts from the pair, who both did business with the city, must be reported. Additionally, they said, she voted for several tax breaks for Lipscomb's projects.

The prosecutors accused Holton of accepting $12,500 for a poll from Lipscomb in exchange for shepherding through her City Council committee millions of dollars in tax breaks for his projects.

But Sweeney found that prosecutors violated the same legal principle in both cases: They should not have relied on the lawmakers' votes or bills they introduced as evidence of criminal behavior. Using those votes is "prohibited and prejudicial," according to a memo filed Thursday with the ruling.

The ruling has far reaching implications, asserting clearly for the first time that local elected leaders enjoy the same legislative immunity in criminal cases as state and federal legislators. The state prosecutors office began investigating Dixon in March 2006 after The Baltimore Sun wrote a series of stories showing that as City Council president she voted on contracts that benefited her sister's employer. The paper also reported that she paid her longtime friend and campaign chairman without a contract.

Over time the prosecutors' probe focused more on Dixon's relationship with Lipscomb. The two dated briefly and exchanged gifts, with Dixon receiving Jimmy Choo shoes, a gift certificate to a local furrier, airplane tickets and Armani clothing. In January, the state prosecutor's office handed down indictments against Dixon, Holton and Lipscomb. Earlier this month Sweeney denied Lipscomb's motion to dismiss his case.

Sweeney acknowledged that his decision to dismiss the charges against Holton and Dixon likely will be appealed.

In a footnote to his memo, the judge also raised the possibility that the state prosecutor might re-indict the mayor, but wrote it would be "premature" for him to consider that issue.

If he decides to re-indict, Rohrbaugh would have to convince a new grand jury that Dixon knew Lipscomb and Turner were doing business with the city without introducing any votes she made on their projects.

It is unlikely that the prosecutors would re-indict Holton since they acknowledged in a court hearing that their bribery case depends on her favorable votes.

The judge was unconvinced by other arguments Weiner and Kelberman put forward in their attempt to persuade Sweeney to dismiss the case against Dixon, particularly their assertion that the charges of theft should be dismissed out of hand because of inconsistencies.

The state prosecutors argued in certain parts of the indictment that the gift cards were unreported gifts, and elsewhere in the charges that they were stolen.Sweeney wrote that indictments with such apparent inconsistencies are "routinely done."

Legal experts viewed the judge's decision as a win for the mayor, but not a decisive one.

"It's a major setback for the state prosecutor's office, but it's not fatal to the Dixon case," said David Irwin, a defense attorney and former prosecutor who does not represent any defendants in the case.

Still it is rare for an indictment to be dismissed, and Irwin called the ruling a "courageous decision in a high-profile case," particularly given that many of the state's top attorneys and lawmakers are closely watching the proceedings.

City Council President Stephanie C. Rawlings-Blake said in a statement she is "very pleased" that the charges against Holton have been tossed out.

The statement said Holton will be restored to her rank of chair of the council's powerful Taxation, Finance and Economic Development Committee, which Rawlings-Blake had taken away after her indictment.

It is unclear how Thursday's ruling will affect the separate bribery case against Lipscomb, who is scheduled to go to trial June 22.

"I'm not happy that my client has to stand trial," said Gerard Martin, Lipscomb's lawyer. It is "incongruous," he said, that Lipscomb is still charged with bribing Holton even though a judge has dismissed charges that Holton accepted a bribe.

But Lipscomb is not a lawmaker and thus unprotected by legislative immunity, so in his case prosecutors will be able to introduce Holton's votes to award tax credits to Lipscomb's projects.

Dixon has said little publicly about the case against her. In a recent editorial board meeting at The Baltimore Sun she insisted that she "does not lose sleep" over the charges.

Baltimore Sun reporters Childs Walker, Julie Bykowicz and Scott Calvert contributed to this article.

Charges against Dixon
DISMISSED: COUNT 1: Perjury for failing to report gifts from developer Ronald H. Lipscomb on 2003 ethics forms

DISMISSED: COUNT 2: Perjury for failing to report gifts from Lipscomb on 2004 ethics forms

DISMISSED: COUNT 3: Perjury for failing to report gifts from Lipscomb and developer Patrick Turner on 2005 ethics forms

DISMISSED: COUNT 4: Perjury for failing to report gifts from Lipscomb on 2006 ethics forms

REMAINS: COUNT 5: Theft for stealing gift cards worth more than $500 donated by Turner

REMAINS: COUNT 6: Theft for stealing gift cards worth more than $500 donated by Lipscomb

REMAINS: COUNT 7: Theft for stealing gift cards worth less than $500 purchased by Baltimore's housing department

REMAINS: COUNT 8: Fraudulent misappropriation by a fiduciary for stealing gift cards worth more than $500 donated by Turner

REMAINS: COUNT 9: Fraudulent misappropriation by a fiduciary for stealing gift cards worth more than $500 donated by Lipscomb

REMAINS: COUNT 10: Fraudulent misappropriation by a fiduciary for stealing gift cards worth less than $100 purchased by the city's housing department

REMAINS: COUNT 11: Misconduct in office for stealing gift cards purchased by the city's housing department

DISMISSED: COUNT 12: Misconduct in office for perjuring herself on ethics forms