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Dixon ruling seen as setback for Rohrbaugh

State Prosecutor Robert A. Rohrbaugh suffered a setback Thursday when a judge threw out perjury charges against Mayor Sheila Dixon and tossed the bribery case against City Councilwoman Helen L. Holton.

It was a high-profile loss for an office saddled with a reputation for rarely tackling big cases or landing noteworthy convictions, despite recent successes.

Prominent Baltimore defense attorney David B. Irwin said some may look at the dismissals and conclude, "Oh, the state prosecutor's office lost another one."

That's not Irwin's view, however. "They're being aggressive, biting off a lot," said the former federal prosecutor. "This one didn't go down too well."

But others noted that the City Hall corruption probe seems to fit a disheartening pattern that dates back years.

"What few and far between major cases they've had have tended to be ones where they don't succeed," said Byron L. Warnken, a University of Baltimore law professor. "Not that it's not honest and good people, but they can't seem to get the wins."

Rohrbaugh's office took on the corruption probe after former U.S. Attorney Thomas M. DiBiagio ended his investigation into Dixon and other City Hall figures after it was disclosed that he told his staff he wanted them to obtain "front page" quality corruption indictments.

Early this year, Rohrbaugh obtained indictments against Dixon, Holton and developer Ronald H. Lipscomb that involved gifts Lipscomb provided Dixon and Holton, allegedly in return for favorable decisions on tax breaks for projects he was involved in. All three deny the charges.

On Thursday, all charges against Holton were dropped, as were five of 12 counts against Dixon. Retired Howard County Circuit Court Judge Dennis M. Sweeney said that Rohrbaugh never effectively rebutted defense arguments that Holton and Dixon could not be prosecuted based solely on their decisions as elected officials.

Warnken said it appears Rohrbaugh "was caught off guard" by the judge's legislative immunity finding. "In the short term, there is an emotional hit their office takes," Warnken said, calling the ruling "a major setback."

The state prosecutor's office dates to 1976, when the General Assembly created it after a spate of public corruption scandals in Maryland. The office is designed to be free of political influence, and can launch its own investigations or act at the behest of the governor or other top officials.

Its limited purview includes state election-law violations and bribery involving public officials. Rohrbaugh was appointed to a six-year term in 2004 by Republican Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr.

During his tenure, investigations of possible misconduct involving the Baltimore liquor board and a multimillion-dollar state technology contract ended without indictment.

"He hasn't put away any high-profile bad guys ," said Matthew A. Crenson, professor emeritus of political science at the Johns Hopkins University. "I think this time there was an effort to get a high-profile conviction, and it's not clear they're going to be able to get it."

But Irwin, the defense attorney, said Rohrbaugh has "taken an office that was doing the dregs, dribs and drabs and made it a high-profile, aggressive prosecutor's office," noting its recovery of more than $5 million that had been stolen from the Baltimore school system.

Rohrbaugh exposed Gilbert Sapperstein, a former boiler company owner who pleaded guilty in 2005 to bribing a schools employee in a scheme to steal millions via fraudulent work invoices.

Last year, Rohrbaugh forced developer Edward St. John, chief executive of St. John Properties Inc., to pay $55,000 in civil fines. Rohrbaugh's office documented that St. John had encouraged his vice presidents to make political donations for which they were reimbursed.

Still, before the Dixon investigation, the most notable case handled by the state prosecutor's office was that of former state Sen. Larry Young. In 1999, a jury acquitted Young of bribery and tax evasion. The trial was handled by Rohrbaugh's predecessor, Stephen Montanarelli.

The Dixon investigation has led to some convictions. The Baltimore Sun reported in 2006 that Dixon voted on contracts that benefited her sister's employer, Utech. The paper also found that the City Council paid $500,000 to Dixon's campaign chairman, Dale G. Clark, for computer work without a contract. Clark and Mildred Boyer, Utech's founder, pleaded guilty to tax charges and agreed to cooperate with prosecutors.


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