Found guilty, fate in doubt

Baltimore Sun

Mayor Sheila Dixon was found guilty Tuesday of embezzling about $500 in retail gift cards meant for charity, a misdemeanor conviction that could end her tenure as Baltimore's first woman mayor. The Maryland Constitution calls for removing elected officials from office when they are sentenced for a crime related to their public duties, and questions swirled about how long Dixon can continue to lead the city.

Jurors said in post-trial interviews that their verdict hinged more on the mayor's abuse of public trust than the dollar amount of the crime.

"It's not that it's 'just gift cards,' " said a juror who identified herself only by her first name, Shawana. The 23-year-old Highlandtown resident said she hoped that people would see a lesson in the conviction: "You can't just do what you want to do ... no matter how famous you are."

Juror Elaine Pollack, a 29-year-old Hampden resident, said, "The denomination doesn't matter. It's a trust issue."

The predominantly black panel of nine women and three men deliberated for seven days before announcing about noon that they had reached a unanimous decision on some of the five counts in the trial, which began Nov. 9.

Dixon, a Democrat, showed no emotion as the verdict was read. Later, outside the courthouse, she declared that "the city will move forward."

The mayor was acquitted on three charges, and the jury deadlocked on a fifth. But even some of Dixon's strongest supporters said the lone guilty finding raised serious doubts about her future.

"I don't think she can continue to be mayor," said Councilwoman Rochelle "Rikki" Spector. "I'm sorry because she has been a good mayor. She was doing a good job."

A date for sentencing in the case has not been set. Dixon faces penalties ranging from unsupervised probation to five years in prison. If removed from office, Dixon could lose her $83,000-a-year pension.

Separately, Dixon is scheduled for a perjury trial in March on charges of failing to disclose gifts from her former boyfriend, Ronald H. Lipscomb, a developer who received lucrative city tax incentives.

City Council President Stephanie C. Rawlings-Blake, who would become mayor if Dixon was forced from office or stepped down, reacted cautiously to the verdict.

"I think we have to let the legal process play out," she said. "There are rules."

Rawlings-Blake did not say whether she was preparing for the possibility of becoming mayor.

"I'm doing the job that I have as council president. The work that each of us do as elected officials and public servants prepares us for leadership," she said.

Elected officials across the state, including Democratic Gov. Martin O'Malley, who preceded Dixon as mayor, called it "a sad day" for Baltimore.

As she left the courthouse, Dixon promised city residents that "we won't miss a step." She looked at her watch and said she was heading across the street to City Hall, drawing applause from supporters.

In a later statement, Dixon said the verdict "does not impact my responsibility to continue serving."

State Prosecutor Robert A. Rohrbaugh, who has investigated Dixon for nearly four years, called the jury "courageous."

The prosecutor said he hopes that other elected leaders will take notice.

"If you commit a crime, you will be charged. It is not worth the risk, and politicians should understand that," he said.

Dixon, a 55-year-old mother of two, was found guilty of a misdemeanor for using Best Buy and Target gift cards on herself and her aides. Developer Patrick Turner said he purchased those gift cards in 2005 for "the children of Baltimore." Dixon was City Council president at the time.

The jury acquitted Dixon of three other charges, including felony theft in the Turner case, and failed to reach a verdict on a charge that she misused about $120 worth of Toys "R" Us gift cards from a separate, city-funded charity program.

Presiding Judge Dennis M. Sweeney declared a mistrial on that count and gave prosecutors until Friday to decide whether to retry it.

After about 40 hours of deliberations, the jury forewoman announced the verdict to a hushed courtroom filled with top City Hall employees. The forewoman, who like other jurors has not been publicly identified, said Dixon had been found not guilty of stealing the Turner gift cards but was guilty of misappropriating those same cards.

Dixon's sister, Janice Dixon, and other supporters watched stone-faced. First Deputy Mayor Andrew B. Frank brought a hand to his head. Walking out, Dixon's director of homeless services, Diane Glauber, had tears in her eyes. City employees who were there would not talk about the verdict.

Outside the courthouse, lead defense attorney Arnold M. Weiner stood with his arm around Dixon. He said the defense team, which includes seven lawyers, was disappointed and would spend the next few days analyzing options, which could include an appeal.

Her attorneys had argued repeatedly for a mistrial, saying the case was so confusing that it had prejudiced the jury against Dixon.

Dixon worked at City Hall for much of the afternoon, her spokesman said, and in the evening attended a happy hour for young professionals in Canton and a holiday shopping event in Fells Point.

But with the verdict, Dixon's continued service in office was suddenly thrown into doubt.

Councilman James B. Kraft said being mayor requires the support of Baltimore's residents.

"A jury of the mayor's peers has found her guilty," he said, "That finding undermines the confidence that the constituents have."

Councilwoman Mary Pat Clarke said she did not know whether Dixon could remain as mayor.

"It is for her to decide," she said.

State prosecutors began investigating allegations of misspending at City Hall in March 2006, after a federal probe resulted in no charges.

During that time, state investigators pored over thousands of documents, raided Dixon's home and interviewed local developers and public officials. Five people have pleaded guilty, including Lipscomb, who formerly dated the mayor.

Lipscomb had been expected to be a key figure in Dixon's trial. Prosecutors alleged that his construction company, Doracon Contracting Inc., gave her office sets of gift cards to donate to needy families in 2005 and 2006.

Defense attorneys promised in their opening statement that they would discredit Lipscomb as untrustworthy and disorganized. State prosecutors never called him to the stand, and two charges involving his gift cards were dismissed by the judge during the trial.

Dixon's attorneys argued that Dixon had assumed that the Turner gift cards, which they said arrived at her office in an unmarked envelope, were personal gifts from Lipscomb and were hers to spend.

But phone records entered into evidence showed calls between Turner and Dixon immediately before and after Turner bought the gift cards. And Turner testified that he had made the charity purchases at Dixon's urging.

Pollack said she and her fellow jurors rejected the defense theory as improbable.

"She got exactly what she asked for," Pollack said. "I don't care if it arrives in a blank envelope or a shoe, you know it's for you if you asked for it."

Shawana, the other juror who spoke publicly, said, "There's no explanation for why she used gift cards for a needy child."

James I. Cabezas, the chief investigator for the state prosecutor's office, said the "jury verdict supports the thought that Dixon did not accidentally step on the line - but eagerly jumped over it and did so repeatedly."

Baltimore Sun reporter Julie Scharper contributed to this article.

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