Lipscomb, Dixon must be smiling at new turn in mayor's trial

Baltimore Sun

Like the Cheshire Cat, the case against Mayor Sheila Dixon might be fading to the point where there could be nothing left but a grin.

I don't know whom that grin will belong to when the trial is done, but I bet I know who is smiling for now.

Exhibit A: Ronald Lipscomb, the developer whose gifts to the mayor figure into both the current and subsequent criminal cases against her. Dixon's one-time boyfriend, he entered into a plea agreement in yet another City Hall corruption case - yes, that's three of them, for those of you keeping score at home. In exchange for letting him off on a lesser charge, he agreed to testify for the prosecution against the mayor.

But Tuesday, prosecutors rested without calling him to the stand. It's not quite a get-out-of-jail-free card, maybe more of a get-out-of-a-bribery-charge-for-not-much, but it still has to be one of the best bargains in town since C-Mart closed.

Shortly thereafter, Circuit Judge Dennis M. Sweeney threw out two charges in the mayor's theft trial that involved Lipscomb and the gift cards that prosecutors say he gave Dixon to hand out to the city's needy but instead she used herself.

So Exhibit B would have to be Dixon. She's still on the hook for other gift cards that went astray, from developer Patrick Turner and from the city's Housing Department's Holly Trolley giveaway, but she can't be unhappy that two of seven charges against her left the room.

While she's largely refused to say anything to the media during the trial, Dixon seemed tempted to break her silence after Sweeney's ruling. When I asked what she thought about losing the Lipscomb-related charges, she asked one of her lawyers, "Can I answer that?" Nope.

Tuesday's developments have thrown the current theft trial against her into some strange and unpredictable territory.

Jurors didn't react perceptibly when Sweeney informed them of "a significant development in this case" that occurred after they'd been sent out of the courtroom for him to hear Dixon's defense lawyer argue that prosecutors had failed to prove their case and she should be immediately acquitted. Failing to get all seven dropped, they then argued, unsuccessfully, for a mistrial.

But surely the jury could become Exhibit C, at least after members get over the confusion of what testimony and which witnesses they now must ignore as they continue hearing the remains of the case. A multi-faceted case that they were told might last about three weeks and perhaps bump into the Thanksgiving holiday just lost a major facet, and the defense is giving indications that it may not need as much time to present its witnesses as the prosecution did. Already, lawyers are starting to discuss the instructions the jury will be given before they start deliberations.

Much of the trial to date has focused on Lipscomb. Dixon's lawyers estimated that some two-thirds of the testimony and exhibits now would have to be tossed out of the case along with the dropped charges, and somehow erased from the jurors' minds. Some jurors have been jotting extensively in their notebooks during the trial, and at one point a member sent a note to Sweeney that two of them needed new pencils.

Tossed out as a result of the dropped charges were some evidence and testimony entered just a couple of hours earlier. The day had begun with State Prosecutor Robert A. Rohrbaugh adding some exhibits, among them phone records from Lipscomb's company, Doracon Contracting. But when Lipscomb was not called to testify, Dixon attorney Dale P. Kelberman argued that such records were worthless because it only proved Lipscomb and Dixon spoke, not what they said.

"We can guess, we can speculate, we can make assumptions," Kelberman said, "but the jury cannot."

Minus Lipscomb, the case loses what could have been some major courtroom drama: the developer who once had lavished gifts and romantic getaways on Dixon would have to take to the stand just yards away from her seat at the defense table.

Meanwhile, much of the testimony the jury did hear, from representatives of various stores painstakingly tracking how gift cards bought by a Lipscomb aide were ultimately used by Dixon or her daughter or friends, will somehow have to be forgotten.

There was much dark muttering by Kelberman on Tuesday that Rohrbaugh had long ago decided against putting Lipscomb on the stand, but wanted that testimony out there, stuck in the jurors' heads.

"What we're faced with here is the spillover effect," Kelberman said. "We can't un-ring four days of testimony."

Rohrbaugh vehemently denied that, saying instead that it was a tactical decision made as the trial got under way.

Meanwhile, the much-watched trial is also playing out among the rest of us. And regardless of outcome, the picture of City Hall that is emerging from the courtroom is a telling one.

As Sweeney bemusedly asked on Tuesday, after the defense made a point about how Dixon couldn't know that an envelope full of gift cards in an unmarked envelope dropped off at her office was from developer Turner rather than her beau Lipscomb: "They are just swimming in gift cards?"

"Whether they're swimming in them or just wading, to her ankles, doesn't make a difference," Kelberman responded.

The volume may not matter - as the safety people always say, you can drown in a puddle. But the seemingly offhand way that gift cards, which are essentially cash, are handled at City Hall? The way no one blinks when an envelope full of them anonymously turns up one day? Or how stashes of cards are dipped into as casually as the candy dish in other workplaces?

As they say in Wonderland, curiouser and curiouser.

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