A house of (gift) cards at City Hall

Baltimore Mayor Sheila Dixon's theft case, which remains before a jury this week, has shed light on little-known charitable efforts she ran from City Hall with few controls over solicitations and vague guidelines for who should benefit.

As City Council president, Dixon requested or distributed donations for needy families, frequently in the form of gift cards, courtroom testimony and grand jury records show. Others who have held that office say they did not handle or seek donations in the same way.

Dixon, a Democrat, is accused by State Prosecutor Robert A. Rohrbaugh of stealing some of the gift cards intended for charity and using them for personal items. She has denied the charges, and jurors will begin their sixth day of deliberations on Monday.

The trial has raised questions, however, about how the charity that flowed through her office has been handled.

It has also raised concerns about the Holly Trolley, a separate holiday season giveaway program - revived when Dixon became mayor - which "had no accounting system," one person involved with the operations of the event testified in court. In another instance, gift cards requested for charity appeared with no notice on the desks of staffers inside City Hall, for their own use.

Some organizations receiving gifts from Dixon, listed in a document that has become a much-discussed exhibit in the case, did not ask for the donations, interviews show.

The volume and use of charitable gift cards and other goods flowing into City Hall during Dixon's tenure as City Council president seemed to surprise Judge Dennis M. Sweeney, who is presiding over the case. "Your theory is that gift cards were just flowing in?" Sweeney asked Dixon's lawyers at one point when the jury was not in the courtroom. "They are just swimming in gift cards?"

The prevalence of gift cards became apparent when Dixon was indicted in January. Under the allegations, Dixon requested charitable donations from prominent developers who were constructing projects in the city.

In one instance, prosecutors have discussed how Dixon spent 19 of 20 Best Buy gift cards within days after developer Patrick Turner delivered them to her office in 2005. Dixon's lawyers have said she thought the cards, which arrived in a plain envelope, were a gift from a boyfriend, another developer, and that she had the right to spend them.

Since the indictment, the city's independent ethics panel has intensified efforts to craft clearer guidelines about when city employees can solicit gifts. The new rules are expected to be completed in early January.

"We keep hearing there is great confusion and we need to clarify it" said ethics panel chairwoman Dana P. Moore. "We want to know, before anyone does any soliciting, what is being asked," she said.

The loose accounting for the charity work, which Dixon directed from 2003 to 2006 as city council president, mirrors the management problems uncovered recently in a nearly 30-year-old nonprofit entity known as the Baltimore City Foundation used by city officials to collect donations from benefactors for causes such as summer jobs programs.

A Baltimore Sun investigation this year found that foundation funds paid for expenses related to Dixon's inauguration, including an ice sculpture and ice skating rink.

Members of the foundation board disagree on whose job it was to sign off on expenses. Meanwhile, city officials solicited companies that regularly do business with the city, such as construction giant Whiting-Turner.

The charitable contributions coming in and out of Dixon's council president office appear to be unique to her tenure.

Councilwoman Mary Pat Clarke, council president from 1987 to 1995, said she would ask donors to give directly to whichever cause seemed most needy at the time.

"Mainly we were asked to help groups raise money for Thanksgiving dinner," Clarke said. "Or Christmas gifts for children. I'm sure we all asked other people to help, but to just go and give them the money. ... I cannot remember a situation where we would be collecting the money."

City Council President Stephanie C. Rawlings-Blake said in a statement that her office "does not provide any direct or indirect monetary assistance to individual constituents."

Some defended Dixon's program, saying there's no need for city officials to crack down on gift-giving programs. "It's just nice that people can give people something," said Sen. Lisa Gladden, a Baltimore Democrat. "We don't do enough giving. Let's say I'm a wealthy developer - it's nice that people are willing to give and say, 'Here, use this as you see fit.' "

But Del. Curt Anderson, a Baltimore Democrat who has attended some of the trial, said the proceedings have shown that Baltimore's gift card charity programs need re-evaluation.

"With a case like this, you do want to fill the cracks that may have been revealed," he said. City officials might want to "tighten up the rules so that the politician isn't directly involved" in receiving donations, he said.

Scott Peterson, a Dixon spokesman, declined to say if the mayor, or any of her staff, continues to solicit charitable donations or whether oversight has been tightened.

"We can't comment or answer those question while the jury is deliberating," Peterson said. "Once the jury is done, we will address those questions."

According to court testimony and other records, between 2003 and 2006, Dixon contacted three developers who had construction projects in the city, and asked them to provide gift cards for the needy.

Turner was renovating a Locust Point grain tower into the upscale Silo Point condominiums in 2005 when Dixon reached out to him. He personally purchased $1,000 in gift cards for her program, and testified that he had the cards dropped off at City Hall in a blank envelope.

Dixon made a similar request the next year, but Turner was out of town when the call came. So he pointed Dixon to a business partner, Glenn Charlow, who also bought gift cards for the program, Turner said in court. Charlow was called as a witness in the case, but the judge ruled that he could not testify. He refused to comment to reporters at the courthouse, and has not returned repeated phone calls.

Turner testified about the need for developers to maintain good relations with city officials, saying an array of approvals - including building permits - are needed for projects to proceed. Failure to obtain those approvals will mean a developer will "go bankrupt," he testified.

Developer Ronald H. Lipscomb, who dated Dixon for several years, also donated gift cards. He testified to a grand jury examining City Hall corruption that a staff member purchased gift cards for the Dixon charity in December 2006 from Best Buy, Old Navy, Circuit City and Giant Foods. He had also been expected to testify at the trial, but was not called.

One courtroom exhibit offered a window into how Dixon ran her charitable program. Prosecutors entered into evidence a 2006 spreadsheet, titled "Christmas Holiday Assistance Requests," used by a Dixon aide to keep track of how gift cards were distributed.

The spreadsheet lists the names of 22 people, showing they received a total of $3,585 in gift cards. It also lists two nonprofit groups that got a total of $2,500 in cards. The cards were from Walmart, Best Buy, Old Navy, Circuit City, Target, Toys "R" Us and Safeway.

Lauretta Brown, a longtime Dixon aide, created the spreadsheet and testified in court that gift cards went mostly to people who qualified for Social Service assistance in the city. "People would call in for assistance," she testified. Brown said "gift cards were just brought to me," by Dixon, top Dixon aide Wanda Watts and former campaign chairman Dale G. Clark.Brown said she would count them, make a note of the amounts and "hide them" in her desk. Brown said she thought Dixon started the program in 2003.

Robert K. Gehman, executive director of Helping Up Mission, an East Baltimore nonprofit that helps homeless male addicts, said that his group received $1,250 worth of Safeway gift cards in December 2006.

Gehman, who was not a witness in the case, said in an interview that he did not know why his organization was chosen as a recipient.

Nobody from his group asked for the cards, he said. He said that a Dixon aide called and said the mayor "would like to make some cards available for some worthy men in the program." He added: "We were thankful for the gift."

Typically, he said, when politicians stop by with donations, they tend to give clothing that can be used for job interviews.

Another beneficiary of Dixon's charity program, Leon Purnell of the Men's Center, an East Baltimore nonprofit that helps men with medical care, counseling and family issues, said in court testimony that his group received 50 Safeway gift cards in $25 denominations from Dixon's office in December 2006. Purnell also said he did not solicit City Hall for the help but called the contribution "a godsend."

In 2007, when she was mayor, Dixon revived a Christmas charity event known as the Holly Trolley, which also distributed gift cards.

Lindbergh Carpenter, a former housing employee who pleaded guilty to stealing seven Toys "R" Us gift cards from the event, said during the trial that "there really was no accounting system for the cards."

A spokeswoman from the city's Housing department refused to say whether those cards were bought with taxpayer funds, saying in an e-mail that it would be "inappropriate" for the agency to answer the question while jurors are deliberating.