Two indictments, but so many loose ends

The Baltimore Sun

For some years now, the state prosecutor's long-running investigation of City Hall shenanigans has played out like Chinese water torture, drip by excruciating drip. A subpoena here, a plea bargain there, even a raid on the mayor's home - but what did it all add up to?

We may not have the full answer yet, but yesterday at least brought the splash of actual indictments.

City Councilwoman Helen L. Holton and developer Ronald H. Lipscomb were indicted on charges related to an alleged bribery scheme. According to the state prosecutor's office, Lipscomb's company, Doracon, which at the time was seeking tax breaks for an Inner Harbor East project, paid for a $12,500 poll commissioned for Holton's 2007 re-election campaign. The indictment says Holton helped get the tax breaks approved but did not disclose the payment for the poll on city ethics forms.

While Lipscomb has long been a central figure in the investigation, Holton's involvement came as a surprise. Cherchez la femme, the saying goes, but in this case it was another femme that has been cherchait.

That, of course, is Mayor Sheila Dixon.

Dixon held a much more powerful role during the period that State Prosecutor Robert A. Rohrbaugh has been investigating - she was City Council president during the time that Lipscomb received millions of dollars in city tax breaks, and also, briefly, was romantically involved with the developer.

But you'll find no mention of her in either the 11-page indictment against Holton or the eight-page indictment against Lipscomb. None of the juicy bits like those in a state prosecutor's affidavit that The Baltimore Sun obtained in June, of lavish trips taken and gifts exchanged by Dixon and Lipscomb even as she was considering tax breaks to benefit him.

Yesterday's indictments may have less sizzle - no Choos, no furs - but they're page-turners in their own way. The charges against Holton detail a series of telephone calls between the councilwoman and Lipscomb during the time that he was seeking tax breaks to develop two major parcels in Inner Harbor East that he had a partial interest in - the Four Seasons Hotel/Legg Mason Office Tower, currently under construction, and the Homewood Suites/Laureate Education project, which has been built.

According to the indictment, a two-minute call from Holton's phone to Lipscomb's was made just minutes before a City Council meeting on June 12, 2006, at which the councilwoman reported favorably on the proposed tax break for the Homewood/Laureate parcel. On July 10, though, when the City Council approved the measure, Holton abstained. The following year, after Holton had the $12,500 bill for a re-election poll sent to Doracon and the company paid it, she voted in favor of tax benefits for the Four Seasons/Legg parcel.

Holton carried some sway in such matters as chair first of the council's Economic Development and Public Financing Subcommittee, and then of the Taxation and Finance Committee. But surely, given the way city government is structured, the lone-councilwoman theory isn't going to explain everything.

The fact that she has been indicted does speak to how the scandal extends beyond what we originally knew. So, now what?

It's not just a whither-Dixon question, although that's a big part of it. What of Doracon's involvement in other projects, such as the Uplands development, that also got city tax breaks? What of the hundreds of thousands of dollars that a former Dixon campaign chairman received for computer work at City Hall, what of the awarding of contracts to Utech, a company that employed Dixon's sister?

The fact that both the campaign chairman, Dale G. Clark, and the Utech owner, Mildred E. Boyer, have been cooperating with the prosecutor's investigation is one of those drips that, to date, have yet to result in any indictments. Now that Holton and Lipscomb may also have some motivation to cooperate, will that lead to anything?

So many questions, so little time: As The Baltimore Sun's Annie Linskey reported this week, the term of the current grand jury that has been considering Rohrbaugh's evidence expires tomorrow. They could still issue more indictments, or not. Another jury could be convened, or - you guessed it - not. It is part of the process that the state prosecutor neither cofirms nor denies that an investigation is continuing or finished.

Is it just the need to tie up loose ends that makes yesterday's indictments seem so incomplete, so yes-but-what-else? I don't think it's malice, or a need for a bigger gotcha that makes me wonder what else Rohrbaugh has, or doesn't have. After nearly three years of wondering just how money gets spent at City Hall, citizens need answers whether or not they come in the form of indictments.

Instead, the drip-drip-drip continues.

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