Baltimore City

Charity event tied to Dixon case disbanded

The Baltimore housing department holiday charity event at the heart of three criminal charges against Mayor Sheila Dixon has been discontinued, city officials said Monday.

Dixon declined to comment on the end of the Holly Trolley program, which was started by then-Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke to distribute holiday gifts to the city's needy. Dixon has also declined to answer any questions about what witnesses during the three-week trial described as the lax management of the program.

City officials said the program distributed several thousand dollars' worth of gifts at Christmastime; documents show that the housing department purchased at least $5,500 in toys and gift cards in 2007. City officials said that a nonprofit will give some toys to children to replace the city program.

The event gained notoriety after Dixon was charged with theft and embezzlement in connection with five gift cards that were supposed to be distributed to needy families as part of the 2007 Holly Trolley but instead were found in the mayor's home, and a sixth card given by Dixon to a wealthy staff member.

A jury last week acquitted Dixon of theft and misconduct in office in relation to the Holly Trolley cards, but could not decide whether she was guilty of misappropriating them. She was found guilty on a separate charge of embezzling gift cards donated by developer Patrick Turner.

First Deputy Mayor Andrew B. Frank said in an e-mail that the charity program - in which officials handed out gift cards and presents to those who attend programs at the city's six Community Action Centers - no longer fits the goals of those centers. The centers provide a variety of services to the city's poor, from assistance with tax preparation to help paying energy bills.

"With the Community Action Centers' renewed focus on delivering direct services to individuals, the Holly Trolley program has been discontinued," Frank said in an e-mail.

Frank said the decision is not connected with the charges against the mayor.

City Council Vice President Edward Reisinger said he was "disappointed" with the decision, adding he has fond memories of how the Holly Trolley provided joy to his constituents.

"It is like Santa Claus is not coming this year," he said.

In at least two of the past three years, Dixon joined other officials in handing out $20 gift cards to Toys "R" Us.

It is unclear how long the program continued after Schmoke left office in 1999. It was rejuvenated and moved to the city's Housing Department in 2006, as Dixon was becoming mayor. The city's Housing Department funded the program using federal money from the Community Service Block Grant, said agency spokeswoman Cheron Porter.

During Dixon's trial, a former housing employee, Lindbergh Carpenter Jr., testified that the program "had no accounting system." Carpenter pleaded guilty to stealing seven of the gift cards.

Frank said that Dixon asked the Annie E. Casey Foundation to review all of the Community Action Centers in the past year. After that review, the city moved responsibility for the centers from housing to the mayor's office.

"The Mayor wanted [the housing department] to focus more on its core housing and neighborhood redevelopment mission," Frank said.

Dixon wants the centers to provide more programs that would focus on financial literacy and preventing homelessness, he said.

Diane Glauber, who now oversees the Community Action Centers, said that Toys for Tots will provide some gifts to children whose families previously were served by the Holly Trolley. Also, Glauber noted, the Ritz-Carlton Residences volunteered to donate roughly 400 Christmas gifts to homeless children in the city.

"Baltimore children will get Christmas gifts this year," Glauber said.

She stressed that she is not personally collecting any of the funds or toys that will be passed on to the children, as other charities run out of Dixon's offices have operated.

"We don't have the staff and the capacity to do any of that," she said. "Where am I going to keep all of those toys?"

Jennifer Langford-Gilligan, the director of sales at Ritz-Carlton Residences Inner Harbor Baltimore, said that her company's program should not be construed as a replacement for the Holly Trolley.

"We are not going to align ourselves with the city," she said. "It is not politically motivated."

City politicians will not be invited to help distribute the gifts, Langford-Gilligan said. "We are not looking for any favors," she said, noting that construction is finished at the 190-unit development, and there are no plans for expansion. "We were in position to give back."

Langford-Gilligan said that she reached out to the Downtown Partnership, asking how she could meet a need in the city, and they pointed her to the mayor's office - which provided a list of homeless shelters and developed a list of children who live at various shelters.

She declined to specify the size of the donation, saying only that it includes "tens of thousands of dollars."