The woman with gray hair piled high on her head perched on a stool in front of rows of college seniors scribbling notes.
The students had many questions: How could recent graduates adhere to their values as they took their first jobs? Do leaders of other cities struggle with ethics as much as Baltimore's politicians do? And did Councilwoman Helen L. Holton believe she could restore faith in city government when charges were still pending against her in court?
Two weeks after pleading no contest to a campaign finance violation, Holton addressed Loyola University students as part of a panel discussion, "Restoring Public Trust in City Hall."
She quoted Shakespeare, cited psychologist Abraham Maslow's "Hierarchy of Needs" and said she first sought office out of a desire to help communities, and in particular, the neediest residents.
And she told the students that earning trust mostly comes down to meeting residents' needs — making sure the trash was picked up and vacant lots were tended.
"Individuals have to search their own heart for the truth," said Holton. "Public trust is not in headlines, but in everyday living."
When one student said he thought it was "kind of disgusting to see the way politicians are behaving like this" in Baltimore and elsewhere, Holton said politicians are unfairly targeted by prosecutors and charges are blown out of proportion by the media.
"We live in a society where cases are brought against people all the time, whether warranted or not," she said.
Holton was joined by Councilman James B. Kraft for the discussion, the fifth in the university's annual "Law and the City" series. Previous discussions have focused on immigration and the use of green technology in the city, among other topics.
But this year's discussion centered on what department chair Andrea Giampetro-Meyer described as a "timely topic."
In February, Sheila Dixon resigned from the mayor's office as part of a plea deal to settle charges of embezzlement and perjury. The three-year corruption probe that netted Dixon, and shined a spotlight on her relationship with a developer who received city contracts, also ensnarled Holton.
Giampetro-Meyer, who organized the event, said Holton brought a "unique perspective" to the discussion because she could "offer insights about what it is like to have your behavior questioned from an ethical perspective."
The West Baltimore councilwoman pleaded no contest earlier this month to a misdemeanor charge stemming from a deal she struck with that same developer — Ronald Lipscomb — as well as bakery-magnate-turned-developer John Paterakis Sr.
Holton asked the pair to pay for a $12,500 poll during her 2007 re-election campaign, bypassing campaign finance rules and surpassing a $4,000 cap on donations from individuals during an election cycle.
Prosecutors have appealed the dismissal of a related and more serious bribery charge to the state's highest court.
For now, Holton must pay a $2,500 fine as part of her plea in Baltimore City Circuit Court. Council President Bernard C. "Jack" Young stripped her of her role as chair of the taxation and finance committee, over which she presided when Paterakis and Lipscomb's projects in Harbor East received tax breaks.
Holton lauded the growth of Harbor East in her remarks to the students and said she has long championed development in East Baltimore.
One of Holton's attorneys in her legal case, Nicholas J. Vitek, sat in the front row for the panel discussion. Vitek, whose wife teaches at Loyola, declined to comment Tuesday night on the potential legal ramifications of Holton's speaking on ethics while her case is still pending in the Court of Appeals.
Two days after Holton appeared in court, the city's spending board approved a $1,100 allocation for her to travel to Palm Beach, Fla., for a conference of the National Association of Counties. She returned from that trip last week, and referred to ethical problems in counties across the country in her remarks at Loyola.
Kraft echoed Holton, citing recent scandals in Detroit and Providence, R.I.
"We don't have a lot of the serious issues other cities have faced," said Kraft. He called the recent City Hall scandals a "distraction" from the business of running the city.
Councilman William H. Cole IV, who was scheduled to take part in the panel discussion, said that he had to cancel because it conflicted with his daughters' soccer game. Cole said that the game would have been called off if he couldn't attend, because the coach couldn't make it and he was the assistant coach.
"I was honored to be invited and I would have loved to have done it," said Cole. "But I don't want to be responsible for the girls not being able to play given all the other sacrifices they've made."
Skylar Murphy, a senior finance major from Massachusetts, asked Holton if she thought she could "restore this faith when there are still allegations pending against you in the court."
"I was elected by the people in my district," said Holton. "They still call upon me. It's about the work that you do."
After the discussion, Murphy said he thought it was a smart public relations move for Holton to talk about ethics.
"The more she speaks about it, the more it makes her look better," he said.
When one woman asked how to modernize city government, Holton spoke of the public apathy manifested by the low voter turnout in the September primary elections.
"I go to community meetings eight days a week and even on Sundays," she said.
The question should not be what elections officials can do to improve government, but what residents can do, she said.
"Citizenry, what are you going to do about it?" Holton asked.
When one student asked if the council members had advice for job seekers, Holton said, "I believe it was Shakespeare who said, 'To thine own self be true.' "
Then she added, "If you can't go home and get a good night's rest based on what you've down that day, you need to look at the choices you've made."