Ronald H. Lipscomb loved being part of the development team behind the high-end Four Seasons hotel and condominium tower now rising on Baltimore's transformed Harbor East waterfront.
Years before the first shovel of dirt, he mused about buying a seven-figure penthouse there - a move that, like his role in the project itself, would drive home his arrival as an elite developer. Now, the Four Seasons is at the heart of a one-count bribery indictment against Lipscomb, who has intertwined hard work and political ties to move well beyond humble roots as a dirt hauler.
Lipscomb, 52, did not return a call yesterday, but a longtime friend and business partner said that Lipscomb found the indictment "exasperating."
"I can't speak for him, but I know he's surprised by it all," said Anthony J. Ambridge, a former city councilman and real estate officer. "It's very exasperating just to have something like this happen to you when you've done nothing wrong. I know he's done nothing wrong."
The indictment also names City Councilwoman Helen L. Holton, who is charged with bribery, malfeasance in office, perjury and nonfeasance in office.
Ambridge, who has partnered with Lipscomb in numerous developments, was not involved in projects named in the indictment.
According to the indictment, the charges stem from a $12,500 bill for a political survey in 2007 that Holton had sent to Lipscomb's construction company, Doracon, and that Lipscomb is accused of paying. The payment came weeks before Holton helped pass city tax breaks for Lipscomb projects at Harbor East, including the Four Seasons.
Lipscomb gained a toehold there in 2002, when he was brought aboard by John Paterakis Sr., a baking mogul whose hotels, residential towers and office buildings in Harbor East have altered the city skyline.
Lipscomb has said he was "shocked" that Paterakis admitted him to the Harbor East partnership, for a $3 million investment. Lipscomb teamed with him and others on projects at the end of President Street such as the $90 million Spinnaker Bay residential tower, which received a 20-year tax break from the city; and the Four Seasons.
Paterakis, who did not return a call yesterday, praised Lipscomb in a 2004 interview with The Baltimore Sun: "You just take to certain people in life. I took naturally to Ron because he's a straight shooter. I've always found him to be honest."
At the time, Paterakis acknowledged that it helped that Lipscomb was black. "You understand [that] the city, state, federal government likes to see minority participation in some of these projects," he said.
Lipscomb has maintained his innocence as first the U.S. attorney's office, and then the state prosecutor, explored his ties to politicians. "I have never done anything inappropriate from a business point of view, absolutely not," he told The Sun in 2004.
Lipscomb's name first surfaced in 2004 in connection with what has evolved into a years-long investigation of spending practices at City Hall.
In November 2007, state prosecutors raided Doracon's East Baltimore offices. An affidavit from the state prosecutor's office alleged that Lipscomb had given Mayor Sheila Dixon thousands of dollars in gifts, including a $2,000 gift certificate to a local furrier. At the time, she was president of the City Council.
Both acknowledged having a personal relationship between 2003 and 2004 but said the gifts had no bearing on votes she cast supporting his projects.
Lipscomb, who has a gentle Southern twang and a gregarious laugh, grew up in North Carolina. In 1979, he moved to Baltimore after his uncle invited him to work for his excavation company. He later struck out on his own with Doracon.
Lipscomb has credited his ascent over 29 years partly to a city minority business law that required builders to meet goals of hiring minorities and women. He also has said quality work won repeat business. One frequent business partner has been Struever Bros. Eccles & Rouse, which has made its mark reviving faded buildings across the city.
Over the years, Lipscomb cultivated close ties with politicians. Ambridge said that in his own years in city government, Lipscomb "never once asked me anything" as a political favor.