The first public corruption trial against Mayor Sheila Dixon, on charges of theft and embezzlement in connection with the use of gift cards meant for the city's needy at Christmastime, begins Monday. Ever the fighter, ever defiant, Mayor Dixon has said she will attend her trial (as well as the one yet to come on charges of perjury), and in recent days she has said she is looking forward to it because the truth will finally come out.
We certainly hope so - the mayor is absolutely right to suggest that in this case so far, truth has been in short supply. We've seen plenty of evidence from the prosecutor: dates, times, amounts. We have gotten glimpses of testimony from those whose own potential legal liability has made them cooperative. And we've heard plenty of theories from Ms. Dixon's lawyers about whether any of the mayor's alleged conduct is actually against the law. But of the things Baltimore residents really need to know about their mayor - what her actions say about her moral compass, whether she regrets anything she's done or whether she feels her conduct has been beyond reproach - we have heard precious little.
There's probably not much chance that we'll get answers like those in this trial or the next one. A criminal trial is suited to answering narrow questions of legal guilt or innocence, not the broad ethical ones that matter in the world of politics and governance. In fact, the threat of prosecution has probably hindered any deeper accounting; under sound legal advice from her many excellent lawyers, Mayor Dixon has said little about the charges she faces other than to proclaim her innocence. And the focus of Maryland State Prosecutor Robert Rohrbaugh has, for good reason, been on those actions for which he has been able to secure indictments, not on other questionable conduct in Ms. Dixon's past.
But as long as the mayor is offering up the hope for truth, here are the questions we'd like to get real answers to:
* When, if ever, did Ms. Dixon conclude that her relationship with developer Ronald H. Lipscomb was fundamentally incompatible with her role in city government? Ms. Dixon had a brief affair with Mr. Lipscomb, one of the city's most prominent developers, when she was City Council president. Prosecutors say he spent thousands of dollars on her for travel and shopping sprees, even as he was appearing before the Board of Estimates, which she chaired, to seek millions in city tax breaks for his projects. In one case, prosecutors say, she voted on one of his projects in the morning and hopped on a train with him to New York that afternoon.
This is a prime case in which the question of right and wrong has been subverted by the question of legal guilt or innocence. Dating a developer isn't illegal, but failing to report on ethics forms that you've received gifts from someone doing business with the city is. Consequently, the issue has devolved into arguments that are absurd in the real world but crucial in court: Can prosecutors prove that Ms. Dixon knew about Mr. Lipscomb's business; and does what he did, under the definition in Baltimore's ethics law, technically constitute doing business with the city? Those may be the crucial questions in court, but they aren't the ones to which Baltimore residents deserve answers.
* Regardless of whether prosecutors prove that Ms. Dixon wound up using gift cards solicited for the needy to buy electronics for her family, does she see any ethical problem with calling developers whose fortunes are tied to the permits and tax breaks she controls and asking them to make those donations in the first place? Does she think they could legitimately say no? And if the prosecutor does prove that she used those gift cards, what does that indicate about her understanding of the separation of her personal life and her professional responsibility?
* When Ms. Dixon insisted as City Council president that more municipal business go to a company that employed her sister, did she know that the firm was bogus and incapable of doing the work in question? Either way, does she think she was justified in advocating public policies that would directly benefit her family? Although Mr. Rohrbaugh got a guilty plea and a pledge of cooperation from Utech President Mildred Boyer, he has filed no charges related to Ms. Dixon's advocacy on behalf of her sister's one-time employer. That doesn't mean Mayor Dixon has nothing to answer for. The same goes for the case of Dale G. Clark, Ms. Dixon's former campaign chairman, who was paid $600,000 over six years to develop a computer system for the City Council. He had no contract for five of those years and was instructed by Ms. Dixon's staff to submit bills in increments of less than $5,000, the amount that requires Board of Estimates approval. No charges against the mayor have been filed in connection with Mr. Clark's work, but that doesn't make it ethical.
* How is Ms. Dixon paying for her team of lawyers? Does she entertain the possibility that taxpayers might have to pick up the tab? If she were exonerated, she could make the argument that she should not have to pay to defend herself from a rogue prosecutor, but even so, would that justify a blank municipal check for the doubtless pricey legal team she's assembled at a time when city employees are being laid off? Is she benefiting from a legal defense fund? If so, who is soliciting money for it, who is donating, and what business do they have with the city?
* And most importantly, does Ms. Dixon regret anything she has done? Has her sense of what is right and wrong evolved at all during the course of this investigation? How can we be assured that the mayor is leading the city in the best interests of all its citizens, not just her family and friends?
That's the kind of truth we'd like to see.
I have been watching Mayor Dixon and her casual and defiant response to any of these pertinent questions.
Her answers have been to give the middle finger to the media and the citizens of Baltimore metaphorically and literally in one case. And the media has played softball with her; she has controlled them and frequently put them in their places and they have obeyed by backing off.
She doesn't seem to be concerned with answering to the citizens of Baltimore either; is it because she doesn't respect them? After all, we are known to continue to vote for a legacy name regardless as to whether that elected official has brought any results to the city.
Regardless of the outcome of the trials, Mayor Dixon shows a lack of respect for her office and the citizens of Baltimore.
While she has not been convicted of wrongdoing, the right thing to do would to have been to step aside until her name was cleared - if in fact it will be. As you point out, the prosecutor's case is just the tip of the iceberg in the unethical-at-best conduct of Ms. Dixon in the past.
The whole sordid affair makes a fool out of honest, hardworking citizens who have fought for decades to make the city a safe, honest and better place. Mayor Dixon appears to have no shame, but what is worst, she appears not to understand that her conduct is wrong.
3rd generation Baltimore resident
I think Mayor Dixon, like far too many other politicians of both of our major parties, seems to feel a sense of entitlement because of their lofty positions. What she and many others seem to forget is that they work for us.