Boyfriend, aides take the stand

Baltimore Sun

A parade of city employees, including Baltimore Mayor Sheila Dixon's current boyfriend, took the stand in Dixon's criminal theft trial Friday, testifying about holiday gift cards that appeared on their own desks and others that were doled out to needy families through a poorly managed city housing program.

The flow of gift cards through City Hall has become a key point, both for prosecutors and defense attorneys.

The Democratic mayor, who has pleaded not guilty to seven theft-related charges, is accused of buying items for herself and her aides with gift cards that prosecutors say were meant for charity. Her attorneys say Dixon believed the cards were personal gifts from her then-boyfriend, developer Ronald H. Lipscomb.

Among the items Dixon purchased with the gift cards were a $400 Xbox 360 game system, a $269 Samsung camcorder and electronics accessories, all seized by state investigators during a seven-hour raid of Dixon's West Baltimore home on June 17, 2008. Special agent John Poliks testified Friday about the search, stating that he also confiscated the mayor's American Express card, Visa debit card and Best Buy "Reward Zone" preferred customer card as part of the investigation.

Inside a brown Coach purse hanging on a doorknob in Dixon's bedroom, Poliks said, was a Giant grocery store gift card. State Prosecutor Robert A. Rohrbaugh had said in his opening statement that Dixon used part of that gift card to purchase blackberries, milk and other groceries and that it had been donated to her office by Lipscomb in December 2006 to give to a needy family.

Another Lipscomb-donated Giant gift card was the subject of testimony by the mayor's current boyfriend, Edward Anthony, a division chief in the city housing department, who took the stand Friday afternoon.

Questioned by Rohrbaugh, Anthony said he did not remember ever receiving a grocery store gift card from Dixon or anyone else. However, Anthony acknowledged that a gift card that was traced to Lipscomb was used in conjunction with his own Giant discount card.

Anthony said he frequently receives - and promptly loses track of - retail gift cards. During cross-examination by defense attorney Melissa Phinn, Anthony gave several examples, concluding, "Being a single man, I don't have the best organization. ... I have a lot of gift cards laying around."

Though called as a prosecution witness, Anthony bolstered the defense strategy by telling jurors that Dixon receives many gifts at the office, sometimes from anonymous senders. "Out of the goodness of her heart," she often gives them to somebody else, Anthony said.

Dixon's lawyers contend that she believed the gift cards she's accused of misusing were actually hers to spend.

Anthony, who said he started dating Dixon in 2006, called their relationship "very challenging" To endure such hardships, he said, "you have to love and respect a person."

He testified that he speaks to the mayor for about 20 minutes each night and that they often pray together.

Anthony's testimony was followed by that of three other city employees, each of whom works for Dixon. They told jurors they received gift cards at a holiday party in December 2006, when Dixon was City Council president. Prosecutors did not ask whether they received the gift cards directly from Dixon, and the employees said they simply found the cards in envelopes on their desks at the party.

The cards, they testified, were for places such as Giant, Old Navy, Circuit City, Target and Toys R Us. In his opening statement, Rohrbaugh had said that, for charitable purposes, gift cards were donated to Dixon's office by Lipscomb in 2005 and 2006, and by another developer, Patrick Turner, in 2005.

In cross-examining the three mayoral employees, defense attorneys tried to build the case that the aides were deserving of charity.

Dixon's scheduler, Sharon Jackson, 21, testified that she was making $10 an hour and working part time while caring for four half-siblings and a sick grandmother. Lavania Monroe, a receptionist for Dixon, said that her salary was about $20,000 at the time and that she, too, was caring for a sick grandmother. Chelsea Scott, an office assistant for Dixon, was divorced, lost her house and declared bankruptcy shortly before receiving gift cards at Christmas.

In addition to the cards, Scott testified that she also found a wrapped PlayStation Portable game system, worth about $225, on her desk that Christmas. It was for her son, she said. Scott said she never told Dixon about her financial straits, but she said she did share that personal information with an office mate, Howard Dixon, who is the mayor's driver.

Later, city housing employee Reginald Scriber took the stand to explain another gift card program.

During the annual "Holly Trolley Tour," held about a week before Christmas, the mayor and other city officials pass out dozens of gift cards to grocery and retail stores in several city neighborhoods, he testified. Scriber said the cards are given to deserving families, but he could not explain precisely how the housing department obtained the cards.

Dixon is accused of keeping for her personal use several of the cards that were to be passed out on the 2007 tour. They were found in a Victoria's Secret bag at her house, Rohrbaugh said in his opening statement.

Scriber said the only person in his department who kept track of the Holly Trolley gift cards was Lindbergh Carpenter. That employee pleaded guilty in January to stealing from the 2007 batch of cards. He is expected to testify Monday at the mayor's trial.

Randell Finney, another link in the gift card chain laid out by prosecutors, testified that he was given two checks totaling $4,000 by Lipscomb, his employer, to purchase cards in 2005 and 2006 from Best Buy and other retail stores. At the prosecution's request, Finney testified under a grant of immunity from presiding Judge Dennis M. Sweeney.

Finney, who works as Lipscomb's driver and personal assistant at Doracon Contracting, said he delivered the gift cards to the mayor's driver, Howard Dixon, who is not related to the mayor.

Finney said he couldn't recall speaking directly to Sheila Dixon about the gift cards. But deputy state prosecutor Thomas "Mike" McDonough showed him phone records indicating that the two had exchanged five phone calls in mid-December 2005, around the time that Finney was purchasing the cards.

Under cross-examination by the mayor's lead attorney, Arnold M. Weiner, Finney acknowledged that he could document only that he had purchased $960 worth of gift cards in 2005. He testified that he had cashed a $1,500 company check from Lipscomb at a liquor store and failed to submit receipts for all the gift card purchases.

Baltimore Sun reporter Annie Linskey contributed to this article.

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