After nearly 4-year probe, Baltimore mayor to get day in court

It was a day packed with official events for Mayor Sheila Dixon: approving millions of dollars in contracts at a Board of Estimates meeting, holding a news conference to urge parents to vaccinate their children against swine flu, pushing health care reform at a town hall meeting, surprising a Baltimore school with a visit, even playing bingo at a senior center that she had fought to keep open.

Throughout the day, she assumed multiple roles, from chief executive to mayor-as-mother to champion of communities. But starting Monday, Dixon, who made history as the city's first female mayor, will take on another title: criminal defendant.

The photo-ops and the meetings held in her offices at City Hall will be replaced by days of sitting in a government building across the street, a courtroom on the second floor of Courthouse East. Her coterie of aides will be replaced by some of the state's toughest defense lawyers.

And instead of talking, she'll spend most of her days listening as State Prosecutor Robert A. Rohrbaugh tries to convince 12 city residents in the jury box that Dixon stole gift cards from needy Baltimore families. She'll hear him say that she knowingly used those cards to buy clothes and electronics for her family and friends.

It is an allegation that she has steadfastly denied since she was indicted in January. The mayor's case is the culmination of a nearly four-year investigation that has dogged her since her days as City Council president.

"A lot of truth will come out," Dixon predicts about the trial, which most believe will last about two weeks.

Much is at stake. If the jury convicts her on any of the seven theft-related charges, the Maryland Constitution requires that she step down. If she goes, a cadre of top aides probably would lose jobs amid a change in administrations.

There are also personal repercussions. Dixon, a 55-year-old mother of two, would become ineligible for her roughly $83,000 annual pension. She could become saddled with debt by the fees of her seven defense attorneys. There's also the theoretical possibility of jail time.

Even if she wins this case, Dixon, a Democrat, faces a second trial on two perjury charges.

A victory, though, could provide momentum and help resolve the ethics questions that have lingered since the state prosecutor gained criminal indictments against her in January. And winning opens the possibility that taxpayers might pay for her legal defense, though she has repeatedly declined to comment on the issue.

"She's got this dark cloud hanging over her," said former Baltimore Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke. "It's got to be cleared up for her to be the most effective mayor that she can be."

This case is about what Dixon did with about 60 gift cards - worth roughly $1,500 - that were donated to the city over four years. The cards are split into five distinct batches: Developer Ronald H. Lipscomb provided three batches; another developer, Patrick Turner, provided another group, and the rest of the cards came from the city's Housing Department.

To gain a conviction, prosecutors must persuade the jurors that Dixon intended to steal the gift cards and that harm was done, legal experts say. The defense will have to provide an alternate reason for Dixon to have used the cards, they say. Her attorneys have hinted that the mayor could have mixed up personal cards with those donated for the poor.

Defense attorney Warren A. Brown said it is critical that Dixon appeal to jurors from the witness chair, though her lawyers have not said whether she will take the stand.

"She's going to need to. Absolutely, positively," said Brown, who is considered one of the city's best trial lawyers and is not connected to her defense. "She is going to have to talk to them. Not talk down to them."

The mayor can come across as brash, and will need to watch her body language, he said. "When you have been immersed in power for a while, you take on all of these trappings," he said. The former public school teacher "is going to have to harken back to the day when she was like these jurors, trying to make ends meet."

Brown said the mayor needs to project that image inside and outside the courtroom. She should walk from City Hall to the court, talk to people along the way and thank them for their support, he said. "Show your natural fear," Brown said. "Humanize yourself. Don't be too lofty."

Meanwhile, said David Gray, a law professor at the University of Maryland, prosecutors can build their case on circumstantial evidence.

The state will compel testimony from Dixon's former boyfriend, the gregarious Lipscomb, who pleaded guilty in June to a campaign finance violation in a separate case. He is expected to say that over the course of three years, he donated gift cards to the office of the City Council president - not for Dixon's personal use. In some cases, the cards were spent hours or days after he purchased them, according to court documents.

Lipscomb's testimony will be crucial, experts said. The well-spoken developer has produced a few lighter moments during grand jury testimony, joking about the steep price of merchandise at Coach, where he shopped for Dixon on a trip to Chicago with her.

Another expected prosecution witness is Howard Dixon, a former city police officer who is not related to the mayor but is a longtime driver and confidant. He's still on the City Hall staff, and prosecutors will say that he picked up one batch of the gift cards Lipscomb donated and then spent them that day at Circuit City on the mayor's behalf, according to court documents.

Finally, Turner is expected to testify. The tall, bearded Baltimore developer, who last year was awarded the largest infrastructure construction tax credit in the city's history, likely will say that he provided gift cards after receiving a call from Dixon and thought they would go to the poor, documents show.

Brown and other legal experts say the theft charges could be the most damaging to Dixon in the eyes of the jurors and citizens of the city.

"It makes it look like you are stealing out of the church plate when it is passed around," Brown said. "Instead of putting money in, you are taking money out."

Recent court filings show that the prosecutors are attempting to put some unnamed "victims" on the stand - needy city residents who would testify that they did not receive gift cards promised to them by City Hall. It is not clear whether the judge will allow those witnesses.

Additionally, prosecutors will have an analyst present financial records to show who bought the gift cards and who spent them.

Aside from a lengthy news conference in January after the indictment was handed up, Dixon's attorneys have said little about their trial strategy. Recent court filings show that they might like the case to resemble a campaign infomercial. Documents they have asked to introduce include news releases and reports touting Dixon's accomplishments, including a 10-year plan to end homelessness, a proposal to address juvenile violence and fliers touting other anti-crime programs.

They want to introduce records showing Dixon's history of contributions to Bethel AME Church, where she worships.

Political analysts say the investigation and the charges have not mortally wounded her career, particularly when compared with recent corruption scandals across the country.

"If these were traffic charges, this is jay-walking versus going 100 miles per hour over the speed limit," said Herb Smith, a professor of political science at McDaniel College. "It is not much ado about nothing. It is much ado about not so much."

Smith said the best indicator of Dixon's strength is that City Council members have not called for her resignation. Though the city is ruled by Democrats, Smith said a serious threat to the mayor would have drawn more rebukes.

"Political ambition trumps party allegiances," he said.

Dixon has deflected most questions about the investigation, all the while trying to build her image as a capable administrator, which observers say fosters support for her throughout the city. In the past year she has led the city through tens of millions of dollars in budget cuts and changed the city's trash pickup and recycling schedules.

Only occasionally has the investigation taken over her public events. A swine-flu event drew questions about a possible plea deal. An informal weekly news conference after a Board of Estimates meeting two weeks ago turned into a rapid-fire inquisition about how the city will run in her absence. An event kicking off the annual Book Fair in September was dominated by inquiries about an article in The Baltimore Sun about the "unexplained cash" that prosecutors said was deposited in her bank accounts.

One potential political risk for her during the trial, which she plans to attend throughout, is being absent if a major event occurs in the city. And the business of running cash-strapped Baltimore cannot be halted for the mayor's trial. The police union has not agreed to her budget-cutting plan. The city's fire and police pension system awaits major changes. There is concern that the pending bid for a slots parlor in Baltimore, a vital future revenue source, is collapsing.

Dixon said her attorneys have worked out an agreement with Circuit Judge Dennis M. Sweeney that would enable her to be informed of any major crisis. She declined to explain how that would work, and her top staff would not say what type of event might prompt them to pull the mayor out of her trial.

In separate interviews, all three deputy mayors took pains to say that city government will move forward despite Dixon's absence.

They said she is often away from the office during the day and that they're accustomed to communicating with her via "decision memos" that lay out issues and recommendations. The memos go in a binder that is placed in "The Bag" - a tote that she takes home each evening, said First Deputy Mayor Andrew B. Frank.

The mayor regularly sends messages to her deputies at night on their BlackBerrys. "From my perspective, the lines of communication will probably remain the same," Frank said.

But those who know Dixon well say she has paid a heavy personal price.

Though the public doesn't see it, former top aide Anthony McCarthy said, the charges have taken a toll that will intensify during the trial.

"She is an intensely private person," McCarthy said. "Almost to a fault. She does not discuss her personal life." She socializes with a small group of friends, he said. "I can only imagine how she is processing having her personal life on such public display."

A common sentiment on the trial - inside and outside City Hall - is an eagerness for resolution.

"I think people want this to be over with," said Denise Espie, a city resident who helped organize a health care town hall at the Enoch Pratt Free Library that Dixon attended last week. "We have to get this over so we can move on."

The crowd at that town hall meeting, mostly made up of black women, stood and applauded when she entered the room. Staff members had passed out little white plastic bags bearing the mayoral logo and full of brochures.

She talked about swine flu vaccinations, disparities in life expectancy in the city's wealthiest and poorest neighborhoods and pride that Johns Hopkins Hospital is located in Baltimore.

"This is a pretty typical day," she told a reporter as she was leaving the event at 8 p.m.

Perhaps it was the late hour or the long day, but when asked what she feared going into the trial, the mayor was more open than usual. She talked not about her political career, her reputation or her finances, but her two children.

"I'm just going to assure them that I'm good and that I'm OK," she said. "Because I think that is important to them."