A Baltimore housing department official pleaded guilty yesterday to stealing from the same batch of gift cards for needy families that Mayor Sheila Dixon is accused of pilfering and has agreed to cooperate in a prosecutor's case against the mayor.
Lindbergh Carpenter Jr., 44, who appears to be included in a 31-page indictment filed against Dixon last week as "Baltimore City Housing Employee #5," pleaded guilty to a charge of theft. Carpenter promised to provide "truthful and complete testimony concerning his dealings" with city officials as prosecutors mount their case against the mayor, court documents show.
Carpenter, who left his city job last month, was sentenced to a year of probation and 250 hours of community service. The charges were brought by State Prosecutor Robert A. Rohrbaugh, whose nearly three-year investigation into City Hall corruption culminated last week with 12 counts of perjury, theft and misuse of office against Dixon.
"There can be no excuse for public servants stealing from the very people who they are supposed to be serving," Rohrbaugh said in a statement. "Public employees who steal from the needy should be, and will be, prosecuted - regardless of the position they hold or the amount they have stolen."
The guilty plea casts fresh attention on what legal analysts consider the most damaging aspect of the state prosecutor's case against the mayor.
Dixon has been charged for failing to disclose lavish gifts from two developers whose projects received millions of dollars in tax breaks. The indictment also accuses her of taking gift cards meant for underprivileged families, including keeping five $20 Toys "R" Us cards purchased by the housing department for a December 2007 event known as the Holly Trolley tour. Dixon's defense lawyers have offered technical arguments that they believe free her from the charges of not disclosing gifts, but they've been far less specific on the gift card theft charges, which lawyers say could sway the opinion of jurors.
"If she is getting these gift cards for charity and going out and buying things, it changes her from being a wonderful outgoing advocate of the city to being a petty thief," said David Irwin, a defense attorney who is not representing anyone in the investigation.
"The more technical arguments you have in front of a jury, the better off you are, especially with a sympathetic jury," Irwin said. "In front of a jury, it is, 'Is she a bad person or not?' " Irwin said. " 'Are we going to lock up the mayor over a form?' "
According to a statement of facts signed by Carpenter, he and other housing department employees purchased toys and gift cards at Toys "R" Us.
On Dec. 20, 2007, the date of the Holly Trolley distribution event, Carpenter gave stacks of gift cards to Deputy Housing Commissioner Reginald Scriber, who gave them to Dixon and others who passed them on to "needy families," the statement said.
After the tour, housing officials donated leftover toys to various community centers, and Carpenter put about 25 extra gift cards in a department safe. Later that month, the statement says, he opened the safe and took seven cards.
Five months later, on May 21, 2008, he used the seven cards toward the purchase of a $265 Nintendo Wii console from Toys "R" Us. The transaction was recorded on the store's security cameras.
Dixon is also accused of stealing the toy store gift cards. Five cards were found in her home during a search by investigators last summer.
Her lawyers have acknowledged that in one instance she gave a $25 city-purchased gift card to an employee facing personal hardships. They've suggested that the cards in her home were leftovers that had yet to be returned to the city.
Irwin, the attorney, said that little could be gleaned from Carpenter's decision to plead guilty. "It still begs the real question here is, 'What does he know?' " he said. "You can't tell that from the plea agreement or the statement of facts."
"What he can testify to is what, if anything, he gave to the mayor," Irwin said.
In Carpenter's plea agreement, which he signed in September 2008, he agrees to testify for the prosecution. Dixon's name is never mentioned. Carpenter's attorney, John Hannaway, declined to comment. Carpenter could not be reached for comment.
Carpenter has agreed to donate that video game console to a suitable charity, according to the plea agreement.
Carpenter was being paid $79,100 a year for his city housing job, but he resigned Dec. 29, 2008, after working for the city for 12 years.
Find more stories and video about the investigation of city hall at baltimoresun.com/dixon