Probe includes Dixon's furs

Possible gifts are being investigated, source says

June 20, 2008|By Doug Donovan and John Fritze | Doug Donovan and John Fritze,SUN REPORTERS

State prosecutors are looking for Mayor Sheila Dixon's fur coats and have been seeking information on gifts she received from people doing business with the city, new lines of inquiry in the probe of City Hall contracts involving her friends.

On the same day that investigators from the state prosecutor's office raided Dixon's home, they called the owner of a fur coat company in Timonium to ask whether he was storing Dixon's two fur coats this year, as he had in the past.

Dixon refused to answer questions about the investigation yesterday. At one point, after a supermarket ribbon-cutting, she was whisked away by staff to a vehicle that sped away from reporters seeking comment about the two-year-old probe.

Prosecutors spent seven hours searching Dixon's home Tuesday and emerged carrying boxes and other items. They have repeatedly declined to comment on what they were looking for or what they removed from Dixon's home.

Some news reports indicated that they were looking for a fur coat in the home, but it appears they were searching for it elsewhere.

On the day of the raid, investigators called Aumann Furs in Timonium to ask if the 104-year-old family-owned company was storing the mayor's furs, the store's owner said yesterday.

Eric Aumann said he told prosecutors that his business stored two of Dixon's furs last summer but that the mayor did not return this spring with her full-length black mink coat and Persian lamb waist-length jacket. He valued the mink at about $5,000 and the Persian jacket at $2,500. He said his company stores about 4,000 coats during the warm months for people who want to prevent them from being damaged by humidity.

"They did call asking if I had them or not," Aumann said of state prosecutors. "I've had them in the past."

Dixon's attorney, Dale P. Kelberman, and her spokesman, Sterling Clifford, declined to answer questions about whether the mayor had ever received a fur coat as a gift or whether prosecutors had sought one during their search of her home. Asked about fur coats at a news conference Wednesday, Dixon said, "I own several," but she declined to discuss the matter further.

Deputy State Prosecutor Thomas M. McDonough would not answer questions about Dixon and said his office does not confirm or deny the existence of investigations.

The search for the fur coats is the first indication that state prosecutors are probing into possible gifts, according to a source familiar with the state investigation. Five years ago federal investigators followed a similar avenue.

In 2003 the U.S. attorney for Maryland began a City Hall probe after The Sun revealed that then-City Council President Dixon and other council members received gifts from companies with city business.

At the time federal prosecutors issued subpoenas for Dixon's travel records. That same year Dixon had traveled to the Bahamas with a group that included Ronald H. Lipscomb, a prominent developer, to celebrate her 50th birthday.

Former federal prosecutors said that investigators were likely looking for a link between Dixon's travel and any gifts provided to her by any of the developers subpoenaed by the U.S. attorney.

Lipscomb and other developers were subpoenaed as part of the federal investigation for records reflecting any income, loans or grants they received from the city and any gifts they gave Dixon and other city officials.

Lipscomb, his company and his wife have made at least $248,000 in political contributions since 1999 to various candidates, including Dixon. His company, Doracon Contracting, was fined $10,000 by the state prosecutor in 2005 for exceeding campaign finance contribution limits in two consecutive election cycles.

The federal investigation ended without charges in 2005.

State prosecutors began the current probe in early 2006 after The Sun revealed that Dixon's office had paid her friend and former campaign chairman, Dale G. Clark, $500,000 over five years for City Council computer support he performed without a contract. City rules require contracts for any work over $5,000.

Dixon's chief of staff at the time, Beatrice Tripps, told Clark in an e-mail to bill for his work in increments under $5,000. State prosecutors have subpoenaed Tripps and nearly a dozen other city employees, many of whom are being ordered to testify before a grand jury in Baltimore next week.

The Sun also revealed in 2006 that Dixon voted on contracts that benefited a company called Utech, which was owned by Mildred E. Boyer and was a minority subcontractor for Lipscomb's company. Boyer had hired the mayor's sister, Janice, shortly after Dixon, then the City Council president, was forced by ethics rules to fire her sibling from a position on her staff.

Both Clark and Boyer have pleaded guilty to tax charges related to the state investigation and have been cooperating with prosecutors.

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