Is taking some gift cards a big deal? Ask Lindbergh Carpenter — he lost his job for it

In the buildup to the trial of Mayor Sheila Dixon on theft charges, we did not hear much about Lindbergh Carpenter Jr. He was not billed as the leading man or even a star witness. He is not, as far as anyone knows, a former boyfriend of the mayor. He's not a current boyfriend, either. He's not a real estate developer. He's neither mover nor shaker.

But I have a feeling that what Lindbergh Carpenter Jr. said, almost in passing, Monday morning two flights above Calvert Street might have greater impact than previously projected.

If any of the Dixon trial jurors had thoughts brewing that the state's case is much ado about almost nothing -- a relatively small amount of gift cards taken for the shopaholic mayor's personal use -- and that even if the cards the mayor spent were really meant for the poor, that such behavior is more tawdry than criminal, and certainly not offensive enough to warrant dismissal from office, they might have been put back on the prosecution's track by a few words from Lindbergh Carpenter's testimony.

Mr. Carpenter took gift cards intended for the needy and, when confronted, he admitted to doing it. He pleaded guilty to a criminal charge.

And he lost his city job.

Ten months later, he's still looking for a new one.

Until last January, Mr. Carpenter, who is in his 40s, had worked for the city for 13 years. His last job was in community service for the housing department, and among his duties was preparing for the mayor's annual Holly Trolley Tour. It's a wonderful thing: The mayor and other dignitaries get to spread cheer -- gift cards and toys -- as they make scheduled stops in some of the city's poorest neighborhoods as Christmas approaches.

In December 2007, Mr. Carpenter was advance man for the Holly Tour. "I went to every stop on the tour to make sure everything was OK for the mayor's arrival," he said.

He apparently did a fine job, too.

Mr. Carpenter bought 120 Toys "R" Us gift cards and locked them in a safe in his office until the day of the tour. The tour went smashingly well, with Mayor Dixon handing out toys and gift cards in five or six neighborhoods and at the final stop, the Community Action Center in northwest Baltimore.

As night fell, Mr. Carpenter said, he still had "maybe 20 gift cards" that had not been distributed. There were no other leftovers -- at least, he said, the mayor did not return any that had been given to her for distribution.

So Mr. Carpenter returned his leftover gift cards to the safe in his city office.

And there they stayed -- until temptation took over.

"I used some of the gift cards," Mr. Carpenter said, in an answer to a prosecution question. "I entered a plea."

In the midst of its investigation of Ms. Dixon, the state prosecutor's office discovered that Mr. Carpenter had taken seven Toys "R" Us gift cards intended for the needy and used them to buy gifts for his own kids.

The mayor of Baltimore, several pay grades above Lindbergh Carpenter, is accused of keeping some of the same Toys "R" Us cards from the 2007 Holly Tour.

She, of course, has pleaded not guilty.

Mr. Carpenter ended up admitting to the theft. He received a year of probation and 250 hours of community service. He also agreed to donate to a charity the video game console he purchased with the gift cards. "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," Robert Rohrbaugh, the state prosecutor said at the time of Mr. Carpenter's guilty plea.

Mr. Carpenter lost his job, though it wasn't phrased that way in court Monday. I believe the term "left city employment" was used, and then Mr. Carpenter was asked why.

"I thought it best," he said, suggesting he had some say in the departure from taxpayer trust and employment. But no adult in the dimly-lit courtroom could miss the suggestion: You don't get caught taking gift cards intended for poor children, even $140 worth, and keep your job. And if that goes for the mid-level bureaucrat, shouldn't it go for everyone?

Unless they were sleeping -- and it was too early in the day for a nap -- the jurors should have picked up on that.

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