Baltimore City

Waiting to learn who pays Dixon's legal bills

Baltimore Mayor Sheila Dixon's legal bills, racked up during a years-long corruption probe that has led her to enlist seven criminal defense attorneys for a theft trial next week, could run into the hundreds of thousands of dollars, legal observers say.

Yet city residents have no idea how their elected leader plans to pay.

Dixon's chief attorneys, Arnold M. Weiner and Dale P. Kelberman, have consistently declined to explain whether they are working pro bono or how they are being compensated. The mayor, too, has been mum.

Her supporters have considered the idea of a legal defense fund, but none appears to have gotten off the ground. Even if one exists, there are few disclosure rules associated with such accounts, though city ethics rules would prevent the mayor from personally soliciting money for it.

Dixon could try to pay on her own.

The divorced mother of two, a former public school teacher, makes $151,700 as mayor.

Then there's the taxpayer option.

If Dixon were acquitted, she could submit her bills to the city Board of Estimates for repayment and argue that Baltimore should cover the legal fees of officials who have been cleared of charges. Her staff tried to put that policy on the books this year but backed off after a public outcry. Still, there's nothing that prevents her from being reimbursed.

Some close to Dixon have tried to explain her refusal to discuss the fees by arguing that jurors could be inclined to convict the mayor if they knew that, by finding her not guilty, they and other city residents would be saddled with her defense costs.

"Any decision or information on the payment of the mayor's legal bills at this time is premature and could taint the trial," said Dixon spokesman Scott Peterson. He declined to comment further.

"Hiding what's going on is actually what's drawing attention to it," said Ryan O'Donnell, director of Common Cause Maryland, a nonpartisan group that tracks the influence of money and politics. "If there were complete transparency, questions would be answered. But as it is, everyone's imagination is running wild."

Jury selection in Dixon's trial is set to begin Monday in Baltimore Circuit Court. The case, which includes seven counts of theft and embezzlement, is expected to last at least two weeks.

The city's first female mayor, Dixon, 55, was indicted in January by a city grand jury, the result of a nearly three-year state probe examining misspending at City Hall. Months later, charges were dismissed on a legal technicality, but Dixon was reindicted in July.

She is accused of purchasing personal items with retail gift cards that developers had donated for needy families while she was City Council president and mayor. She also will face a separate trial on two perjury charges stemming from gifts she received from her then-boyfriend, Ronald H. Lipscomb, a developer who was, at the same time, seeking tax credits from the city.

The mayor has denied any wrongdoing.

Dixon has assembled a seven-attorney team that, collectively, has a century and a half of legal experience. Weiner has been practicing since 1957, and Kelberman, a former federal prosecutor, is a principal at East Coast legal giant Miles & Stockbridge.

The number of lawyers involved in Dixon's defense "is not unusual in any way," Weiner said, and is necessary to counter an aggressive prosecution.

The defense attorneys, who pored through thousands of documents that "filled two huge rooms," Weiner said, will be up against four state lawyers, including State Prosecutor Robert A. Rohrbaugh. In addition, seven state investigators worked on the case, Weiner said, estimating that prosecutors have a 60 percent larger team than he does.

He has called it the largest and costliest public corruption investigation he has ever seen. "And there is no question it is at taxpayer expense," he said.

Maryland State Bar Association conduct rules prohibit criminal defense attorneys from charging their clients only if they are acquitted, but attorneys can greatly reduce their fees regardless of a trial's outcome.

Dana P. Moore, chairwoman of the city's ethics board and a private attorney, said it is "industry standard" for defense attorneys to cut high-profile clients huge fee breaks because of the public relations benefits they receive. She said she sees no ethics violation if that's what is happening in Dixon's case.

But other ethical red flags could be raised if Dixon ever reveals the structure of her legal fees.

Lobbyists and others who do business or have a financial interest with the city may not contribute to an elected official's legal defense, according to a city ethics board opinion issued in 2008. Ethics rules also require public officials to report gifts greater than $50 from those doing business with the city.

None of Dixon's attorneys in the case does business with the city.

However, a recent member of Weiner's firm, Frank Boston, lobbies the city on behalf of nearly a dozen high-profile clients.

Boston said he wrote a letter to the city ethics board to check whether Weiner's representation of Dixon would cause a conflict with his lobbying work. The ethics board replied with a list of questions that focused on what his work would be on the mayor's case. Instead of answering, Boston said, he felt it would be best to sever ties.

In February, a month after Dixon was indicted, Weiner and Boston formally separated their businesses, though Boston continues to work out of Weiner's office space in Clipper Mill.

"Lobbying the mayor and City Council of Baltimore and representing her in this matter would create a sense of impropriety, even if legally it was OK," Boston said. "Therefore, we decided it was in everyone's best interest that until the trial was over, I distance myself from the firm."

There are no state laws that specifically govern whether local elected officials can be reimbursed for their lawyers' bills. And there aren't local rules either - reimbursement is decided on a case-by-case basis by the city Board of Estimates, which Dixon controls.

Although Dixon would be within her rights to seek taxpayer help, there could be significant political costs, observers said, particularly at a time when the cash-strapped city is laying off employees and cutting services. She is up for re-election in 2011.

Former Baltimore Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke said the details from the trial will determine whether the public can stomach paying Dixon's legal bills.

"If the reaction of the public is these were meaningless charges, then there may be support for some kind of reimbursement of her expenses," Schmoke said. "If people think that she was acquitted on a technicality, and yet there was really some substance to this, then there would be less support."

Across the country, elected officials faced with criminal charges have relied on taxpayers and their own campaign funds to pay their sometimes enormous legal bills.

Attorneys for former Memphis Mayor Willie Herenton, facing possible federal indictment, billed him $55,000, the local newspaper reported, charges that were passed along to taxpayers. The former Birmingham, Ala., mayor, who was convicted last month of bribery, was declared indigent by a judge, meaning taxpayers are on the hook for at least $60,000 in lawyer fees.

Former Illinois Gov. Rod R. Blagojevich, who ran up more than $2 million in lawyer fees in his federal public corruption case, and former Detroit Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick, who incurred more than $1 million in legal costs during his obstruction of justice case and civil suits, both tapped campaign funds.

But Maryland's laws are clear: An elected official can use campaign funds only for expenses that advance a campaign or promote a candidate.

A 1993 opinion by then-Attorney General J. Joseph Curran Jr. and reaffirmed last year by Attorney General Douglas F. Gansler rules out using the money to pay for criminal defense unless the case involves campaign finance violations.

None of the charges against Dixon fits that category.

Another indicted Baltimore elected official could make the case that her legal expenses should be paid out of her campaign coffers, said Jared DeMarinis, director of candidacy and campaign finance at the Maryland State Board of Elections. Councilwoman Helen L. Holton is accused of improperly requesting that two developers pay for a $12,500 political poll. She is charged with campaign finance violations.

Baltimore Sun reporter Annie Linskey contributed to this article.