Sheila Dixon sat silently in court during her final hours as mayor of Baltimore on Thursday, receiving a scolding from a judge who said she was leaving office "in total disgrace" after stealing gift cards intended for needy families and would carry a "badge of dishonor" for the rest of her life.
Circuit Court Judge Dennis M. Sweeney delivered the rebuke during a sentencing hearing at which he accepted a plea agreement calling for Dixon to step down as mayor and pay $45,000 to charity while keeping her pension.
Dixon, a Democrat, decided not to make a statement on her own behalf at the hearing -- just as she did not take the stand in the November criminal trial that resulted in a conviction. She took no questions from the media as she entered the courthouse and none when she left, surrounded by her security detail and aides, via a private rear exit.
Her attorney, Arnold M. Weiner, said later that his client "accepted" the outcome and is "sober and determined."
The case was the highest profile result of a nearly three-year investigation into City Hall corruption which sought to expose close relationships between elected officials and developers who need approval from public officials for their projects to proceed.
The judge urged the city's leaders to take seriously the ethics reforms proposed in the wake of the trial. But he also cautioned vigilance, saying that if reform is not taken seriously, the city will be "doomed" to repeat a "cycle of petty and tawdry corruption and special entitlement."
Dixon had previously entered what is known as an Alford plea to a single perjury charge that had been scheduled for a second trial in March. She thereby avoided admitting guilt while acknowledging prosecutors had enough evidence to convict her of failing to disclose on her city ethics form lavish gifts from her then boyfriend Ronald H. Lipscomb, a developer who benefited from city tax breaks and contracts.
In a separate case that ended in early December, a city jury found her guilty of stealing roughly $500 worth of retail gift cards intended for the needy.
As part of the plea deal that went into effect Thursday, Dixon received probation before judgment, a punishment that allows her criminal record to be wiped clean if she completes the terms of her probation within four years. In addition to leaving office and contributing to charity, she must also complete 500 hours of community service.
Sweeney said the terms of the agreement allow the city to "move forward" from a "painful and dispiriting episode." The judge, as he has during sentencing hearings for others who pleaded guilty in the City Hall corruption cases, weighed in on the state prosecutor's cases against Dixon, saying the evidence against her was "strong if not indeed overwhelming."
He said the jury was "generous" to return a conviction of just a single theft count. While there were five charges against her, she could have been found guilty of at most three theft-related counts under instructions that Sweeney gave to the jury.
Had the perjury case gone forward, Sweeney said conviction "would have been a virtual certainty."
State Prosecutor Robert A. Rohrbaugh said little during the hearing, but in a pre-hearing memo released earlier this week called her lack of contrition since the conviction "unrepentant" and "laughable."
He has investigated Dixon since March 2006 after The Baltimore Sun published a series of stories revealing that the city paid hundreds of thousands of dollars to Dixon's former campaign chairman for city work he did without a contract. Dixon has not apologized publicly for her actions. At a party in Little Italy Wednesday night, she told a group of supporters that the city would continue to be "strong" because of work on the grass roots level and not because of "the leaders in the city or the state or the country."
On Tuesday, Sweeney singled out City Solicitor George Nilson for supplying an affidavit to Dixon's defense team supporting an argument that Dixon's boyfriend was not technically doing business with city and therefore Dixon never needed to disclose the gifts he gave her.
The judge said the contents of the Nilson affidavit could be "expected" from Dixon's defense counsel who are "duty bound to raise all conceivable arguments on her behalf," but said it was "quite another thing" for Nilson to assert that Lipscomb was not doing business with or regulated by the city. Sweeney also noted the lack of "any dissent or outrage" by other elected officials about the affidavit.
Reached yesterday, Nilson said he equated supplying the affidavit for the defense with the many documents and testimony provided by city officials to prosecutors.
"Why should we refuse to provide facts in affidavit format?" Nilson said. "The prosecutor gets to call all these people into a grand jury. Why should only the prosecutor have facts?"
The courtroom audience Tuesday included many of the same friends who sat through hours of her criminal trial, as well as about half a dozen key aides who were not retained by Mayor Stephanie C. Rawlings-Blake, who was sworn in shortly after the hearing.
Nilson said he wished the judge had focused on shortcomings in the city's ethics code saying they "clearly" need to be fixed or "clarified."
Sweeney ended his statement with a full-throated defense of the jurors who deliberated for 40 hours in the criminal trial. In a motion for a new trial, Dixon's attorneys said that jurors violated the judge's orders not to discuss the case by becoming linked on Facebook, and that several lied about their past. A group of jurors were subpoenaed to appear at a January court hearing but Dixon reached a plea deal before they had to testify.
Sweeney complimented their work and said they "put aside personal biases" and "worked very hard together as a team."
After the hearing Dixon conferred with her lawyers briefly and then left. Asked about Dixon's plans for the day, her spokesman Scott Peterson shrugged. "I don't know," he said. "She has her [city] car until noon."