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Double dipping? Sheila Dixon, do you really want to go there? | COMMENTARY

Six candidates for mayor of Baltimore took part in an online debate on May 11 sponsored by the city branch of the NAACP and Afro News.
Six candidates for mayor of Baltimore took part in an online debate on May 11 sponsored by the city branch of the NAACP and Afro News.(Screen Shot)

I distinctly heard Sheila Dixon use the word “corruption” and the term “double dipping” in the same sentence Monday night as the once-disgraced former mayor of Baltimore suggested that an opponent of hers in the coming election had done something sketchy. The gall meter reached at least 7.

This happened during an online debate sponsored by the city branch of the NAACP and the AFRO News. Six Democratic mayoral candidates in the June 2 primary participated, and there was some subtle and not-so-subtle shade throwing.

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In opening remarks, candidate T.J. Smith, the former Baltimore police spokesman, mentioned the need for the city to avoid “more embarrassments,” an obvious reference to the odious fact that two of the city’s last three mayors, Dixon and Catherine Pugh, had resigned from office in scandals.

Minutes later, when asked about the costly settlements city taxpayers have paid for police misconduct, Smith said it was important to address the “corruption culture.” And he noted that the notoriously corrupt Gun Trace Task Force had been formed during Dixon’s time as mayor more than 10 years ago.

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When it was her turn, Dixon came back with this: “I think it’s really important, T.J., that you be mindful of talking about corruption when you were double dipping between Anne Arundel County and the payroll of Baltimore City.”

Well now. I didn’t expect her to go there.

Am I the only one who remembers Dixon double dipping when she was on the Baltimore City Council? It was 20 years ago, but it was clearly double dipping in the sense that she took salaries from two governments at once — even though a state ethics board told her she shouldn’t.

But, more on that in a minute.

What was that about T.J. Smith double dipping, and what’s wrong with double dipping anyway?

Bear with me, this might take a minute to unpack.

First, double dipping: It’s a term with a negative connotation. If you look it up in the Merriam-Webster Dictionary — and you don’t have to because I did — you get this definition: “the usually illicit practice of accepting income from two mutually exclusive sources (as from a government pension and a government salary or from two insurers for the same loss).”

Well now. I wasn’t expecting to see the word “illicit” in that definition. Taking a pension that you earned while, say, a cop or firefighter, then picking up another job with some other government agency, doesn’t strike me as “illicit.” It’s just something that makes taxpayers groan and growl. But it’s not “illicit” unless there’s some kind of fraud or conflict of interest.

So, as far as I can tell, applying the Merriam-Webster definition to what happened with T.J. Smith, when he left Anne Arundel County to work in the city in 2015, would not be accurate.

The arrangement wasn’t “illicit.” It was on the public record and approved by the city Board of Estimates.

Recall that Kevin Davis, the former Anne Arundel County police chief who became Baltimore police commissioner, hired Smith to be the department’s spokesman. “It was an opportunity to help my hometown heal as it was hurting from riots and police mistrust,” Smith says.

For his first year, Smith took a leave of absence from the Anne Arundel police force, and the city paid his salary. After that, in a highly customized deal, Anne Arundel agreed to pay $91,570 of Smith’s annual salary in exchange for the city assigning two of its narcotics detectives to a newly formed Opioid Task Force that operated across the city-county line. The city paid the balance of Smith’s salary, $45,000.

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The deal kept Smith on the Anne Arundel payroll, while he worked in Baltimore, so he could reach the 20-year employment mark that made him eligible for his county police pension.

Smith says Dixon brought the matter up because of a recent report on WBFF-TV (“FOX45 News Investigates”) that examined the arrangement. The report made repeated references to Smith’s “multimillion-dollar pension,” as if it were paid in a lump sum.

The arrangement was unusual — a real bend-over-backwards to give Davis the spokesman he felt the BPD needed in the wake of the Freddie Gray unrest. But Smith says it was “ethically and legally sound.”

Monday night, Sheila Dixon suggested that it was corrupt and constituted double dipping.

That’s where I had to chuckle and click into The Baltimore Sun archives to pull a story from 2000.

By then, Dixon had been a member of the City Council for 12 years and in her first as council president, a position that paid $89,000 a year. Dixon had another job, a part-time position as a trade representative with the state Department of Business and Economic Development. That job paid $56,000.

After becoming council president, Dixon kept the state job while cutting her hours and pay in half. She asked the State Ethics Commission if that was kosher, and the commission said no, there would be too many conflicts. Dixon’s “dual employment,” the commission said, “would be inconsistent with prohibitions [in] the public ethics law.”

Alas, Dixon did not bow to that ruling. Instead, her state boss put restrictions on her activities to shield her from potential conflicts, and she continued to work for the state while council president.

So, at this juncture, I think it’s really important that Sheila Dixon be mindful of suggesting that double dipping is a corrupt practice when she once double dipped.

In case you’re wondering: While Dixon currently collects her pension from earlier government employment (estimated at $83,000 annually at the time of her plea deal in 2010), Martha McKenna, her spokeswoman, says Dixon will not receive pension payments if elected mayor.

In an email exchange, I asked if that was Dixon’s choice or required by city code, and McKenna replied, “Either way, she will stop payments of her pension if elected.”

And try to get by on the mayor’s $185,000 salary.

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