Turner says he thought cards were for charity

Baltimore Sun

Baltimore developer Patrick Turner testified in Mayor Sheila Dixon's criminal theft trial Monday that he purchased $1,000 in gift cards just before Christmas in 2005, believing the cards would be distributed to "the children of Baltimore."

Turner also testified that he asked his business partner, Glenn Charlow, to do the same the next year, also thinking that the cards would be given to City Hall for charity.

The developer's account provides a critical element in the case against the mayor, as prosecutors try to prove that Dixon solicited gift cards for needy families and then used them for herself.

Dixon, a Democrat, is charged with seven theft-related counts in a trial that began last week. She also faces a separate trial, scheduled for March, on perjury charges that she failed to report gifts from her former boyfriend, developer Ronald H. Lipscomb. If convicted of any charge, she could be removed from office, lose her $83,000 annual pension and face fines or jail time.

Prosecutors called eight witnesses yesterday, including Turner's business partner, Charlow, who sat silent in the witness chair for 15 minutes as prosecutors and defense attorneys met privately at the judge's bench. Charlow was excused without testifying but may be called back later in the trial.

The state used its witnesses to paint an unflattering picture of Dixon as a frequent shopper who kept stacks of gift cards in her West Baltimore home, many of which could not be traced by investigators.

Defense attorneys tried to plant seeds of doubt about the developer's testimony.

Lead attorney Arnold M. Weiner had said in his opening statement that Dixon viewed the gift cards, including the ones from Turner, as personal gifts to her from Lipscomb.

Under cross-examination by Dixon attorney Dale P. Kelberman, Turner, the first developer to testify at the trial, said he did not remember how his stack of 40 gift cards was delivered to City Hall and said it was possible that he put them in a blank envelope that did not bear his name.

Turner, whose $1.4 billion planned community of offices, stores and housing in Westport is benefiting from the largest tax incentive the city has ever approved, appeared uncomfortable on the stand. He gripped the wooden arms of the witness chair and smoothed his mustache and beard, sometimes quickly dabbing his lips with a napkin. His face reddened at times, and he frequently glanced toward the defense table, where Dixon sat scribbling notes.

The developer testified that he bought gift cards in December 2005 at Best Buy and Target because the stores "were close to each other" and "it was suggested that that type of store would be an appropriate place" to purchase cards. Asked why he made the purchases, he said, "It was Christmas gifts for children."

Though a witness for prosecutors, Turner said he could not remember how or when Dixon contacted him about donating gift cards in 2005. His cell phone records showed that Dixon called him several times around the time he purchased the cards, but he said he did not remember speaking with her about buying the cards.

In an effort to remind him, prosecutors flashed copies of Turner's American Express credit card bill from December 2005 on a screen to show the jury that he had scrawled "office" and "charity" next to the reference to his Target $500 gift card purchase. He wrote the same note on the next line of the credit card bill, which showed that he bought $500 in cards from Best Buy.

Just before Christmas in 2006, Turner received a call from Dixon while he was on vacation in the Cayman Islands, his phone records showed. He said he did "not recall" the details of the phone call but testified that it led him to call Charlow, his business partner on the $150 million Silo Point condo project in Locust Point.

The courtroom was nearly empty Monday morning but filled slowly through the day.

City Councilwoman Rochelle "Rikki" Spector, a Dixon supporter who listened to Turner testify, called the trial "a very important situation for council people." She said that she "didn't want to just sit in my office and pontificate."The day began with prosecutors laying out evidence for the charge that the mayor pilfered gift cards from the city housing department's 2007 Holly Trolley Tour, at which she and housing department officials hand out Toys "R" Us gift cards to children in several low-income neighborhoods.

Lindbergh Carpenter Jr., a former housing employee who ran the program, testified that "there really was no accounting system" for the cards he bought and distributed using taxpayer money. He pleaded guilty in January to stealing from the same batch of cards at issue in Dixon's trial.

Carpenter estimated that he had purchased 120 Toys "R" Us gift cards and given "a stack" of them to one of his supervisors. His boss, in turn, gave them to Dixon to hand out at Holly Trolley stops. Carpenter has admitted that he stole seven of the cards. He resigned his city job in December, shortly after being criminally charged and is now unemployed.

State investigators testified that they found several unused Toys "R" gift cards in a Victoria's Secret bag in Dixon's house when they raided it in June 2008.

On Monday, prosecutors traced one of the cards to Mary Pat Fannon, a lobbyist for the city, who used it at an Annapolis Toy "R" Us store.

She testified that she and her husband have an annual income in excess of $500,000. Fannon said that at a holiday pot luck dinner in 2007, Dixon personally handed her a $15 Toys "R" Us gift card and told her to buy "something nice" for her daughter. Prosecutors showed jurors a thank-you card Fannon wrote the mayor for the gift card.

Fannon was the first city employee in the trial to acknowledge that she received a gift card directly from the mayor.

Last week, the mayor's boyfriend, Edward Anthony, a manager at the Baltimore City Department of Housing and Community Development, testified that he could not recall receiving a Giant grocery store gift card from Dixon. Prosecutors then produced store records that indicated Anthony had spent a gift card originally purchased by an employee of developer Lipscomb.

Three Dixon aides have testified that they received gift cards to stores, including Best Buy, Giant and Target - and that they found the cards in gift bags on their desks.

In grand jury testimony included in a prosecution motion but not provided to the jurors, one of the employees, Chelsea Scott, testified that "Dixon gave gifts to my children. She gave them gift cards, and she gave me a gift card."

In cross-examining prosecution witnesses, defense attorneys sought to show that it was not unusual for Dixon to possess gift cards.

A state investigator, asked to list the different gift cards and gift certificates found when Dixon's house was raided, testified that they included Dunkin' Donuts, ESPN, Nordstrom, Starbucks, Blockbuster, Toys "R" Us, Legal Seafood and Hecht's.

Defense attorneys also drew the jury's attention to various store receipts, which included references to gift cards, confiscated from Dixon's home. During redirect examination, prosecutor Rohrbaugh pointed out that one of those receipts showed that Dixon had used $1,800 "in cash" to purchase a St. John suit from Nordstrom. Neither the prosecutor nor witness gave additional details.

Christopher Thesing, the investigator, said he tried to determine who had purchased the cards seized at Dixon's house, but he said that some had been paid for with cash and could not be traced. He said the "miscellaneous" gift cards found at the mayor's house had been bought in batches of one or two.

"They were all single or double purchases," Thesing said. "They were not purchased in bulk like the [developers'] cards."

Jurors are to return at 10 a.m. today. Unlike previous days, Rohrbaugh would not say which witness he will call next.

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