Dixon brought this on herself

June 19, 2008|By DAN RODRICKS

Sheila Dixon, the mayor of Baltimore, attended the weekly meeting of the Board of Estimates, and the Board of Estimates rolled quickly through routine agenda items that included developers' agreements, reimbursement contracts, consultant agreements, grant agreements, disbursement of funds, transfer of funds, out-of-town travel expenses, contract renewals, contract extensions, pre-qualification of contractors, architects and engineers.

It's the eye-glazing, complex and essential business of a municipal government with a budget of $2.94 billion. It goes on week after week: The board approves contracts for land deals, for the paving of roads, the roofing of schools and the purchase of computer services. Under the law, all of this requires the oversight and consent of trusted public officials, Sheila Dixon being one of them. Dixon has had a seat on the Board of Estimates as City Council president and as mayor. Yesterday morning, it was impossible to miss the irony of the previous 24 hours - staff of the state prosecutor raided Dixon's house in connection with an investigation of city contracts and here she was, back in action, sitting on the board that oversees city contracts.

She hasn't been indicted, but questions have been raised about some of Dixon's actions while City Council president - and some of them were so smelly they warranted investigation. Anyone who says otherwise has a political blind spot.

There's this push-back now against an investigation that seems to have gone on too long and is being conducted by a state prosecutor who was appointed by a Republican governor. Many smell prosecutorial bias. The prosecutor is picking on the Democratic mayor, we've been told by her supporters. This is a "witch hunt." It wouldn't be happening if the mayor were white, or a guy. Mary Pat Clarke, of the all-Democrat Baltimore City Council, called Tuesday's court-authorized search of Dixon's house a "home invasion," which guaranteed her name in the newspaper.

The push-back against the investigation is understandable and predictable. There are a lot of positive things happening in the city, and the last thing we need is a mayor taking a perp walk.

But Dixon brought this on herself.

In 2006, The Sun smoked out Dixon's dealings with Dale Clark, her former campaign chairman, and the smoke has been in the air since.

Reporting by The Sun showed that, between 2001 and 2006, Dixon steered no-bid government work worth at least $600,000 to Clark - and most of it without a written contract. Furthermore, a Dixon staffer crafted a way to keep the payments to under $5,000 each, which means they didn't need approval of the Board of Estimates.

The work Dixon steered to Clark was for the City Council's computer system.

"Dale Clark did not have a contract to perform this work," Dixon's spokesman acknowledged at the time. "It's embarrassing, but it's not a willful act of influence-peddling."

Dixon's reaction at the time? She accused the newspaper of printing "lies" about her and her staff.

Her lawyer said: "People make mistakes. That's what all this is about. [Dixon] has already said she recognizes that a contract should have followed here and it didn't - that's the be-all and end-all to this."

But questions about the Clark deal have remained in the air over City Hall. Clark pleaded guilty to income tax evasion charges last September, and obviously the state prosecutor is still looking at all this.

Then again, maybe he's looking at something else. We don't know. We're not supposed to know. That's the way cases like these go. That's the way prosecutors operate. And they take their time. None of that is new. Nor is it new to hear politicians complaining about prosecutors and calling their investigation "witch hunts." We've heard it all before. We live in Maryland.

Grow up in Maryland, as Dixon has over the past 50-plus years, and maybe you get a clue about a few things - that there's a tradition of zealous white-collar prosecutions here; that the careers of numerous politicians and associates, most of them Democrats, have been destroyed because of wrongdoing; that the slightest sleight of hand gets noticed.

There was a tendency Tuesday to feel sorry and embarrassed for Dixon - seeing her house raided - and yesterday, seeing her being mayoral, in a smart yellow suit, at the Board of Estimates meeting and then, happy and vigorous, at a news conference to herald the African-American Heritage Festival at Camden Yards (June 27-29). She took a minute to console 9-year-old Shade (Shah-day) Marable, who was supposed to sing a song in the City Hall Rotunda but stopped after a few beautiful bars under the stress of the crowd and the TV cameras. Sheila Dixon wears her mayoral suit well.

But if she did not want to be nagged by all these questions, then maybe she should not have hired her sister to work in her office when she was council president. Or, once her sister moved to a new job with a computer management company, maybe Dixon should have refrained from discussing and voting on contracts that benefited that company. Maybe she should not have made the "mistake" of paying Dale Clark $600,000 without a contract.

Maybe, then, she would not have had unwelcome visitors in her house on Tuesday. Maybe she would not have a prosecutor on her back today.

dan.rodricks@baltsun.com

Dan Rodricks can be heard on Midday, Mondays through Thursdays, noon to 2 p.m., on 88.1, WYPR-FM.

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