Dixon gifts probed

Prosecutors look at mayor's ties to developer who got city breaks

June 24, 2008|By John Fritze and Doug Donovan | John Fritze and Doug Donovan,Sun reporters

Prosecutors are investigating whether Baltimore Mayor Sheila Dixon received thousands of dollars in gifts - including fur coats - from a prominent developer whose projects benefited from tax breaks and zoning changes she supported as City Council president, a document obtained by The Sun shows.

Court records, drafted by the state prosecutor's office in November, indicate that Dixon also went on lavish trips to Boston, the Bahamas, Chicago and Colorado with the developer, Ronald H. Lipscomb. In one instance, the two left Baltimore for New York by train hours after she had voted to approve a tax break for one of his company's largest projects.

Yesterday, a Baltimore City grand jury began calling witnesses in the case to testify in a courthouse a block from City Hall.

FOR THE RECORD - Articles in Sunday's and yesterday's editions of The Sun about the state prosecutor's investigation of Mayor Sheila Dixon misspelled the name of attorney Gerard P. Martin.
The Sun regrets the error.

The documents, presented by prosecutors to a Baltimore County District Court, offer the most detailed accounting yet of the two-year investigation into City Hall spending and provide new information about possible ethical lapses that occurred when Dixon was City Council president.

After receiving questions from The Sun yesterday, Dixon and Lipscomb acknowledged publicly for the first time that they had had a relationship and exchanged gifts, but both denied that the relationship played any role in projects that Dixon helped advance on the City Council and the Board of Estimates.

"In late 2003 and early 2004, I had a personal relationship with Ron Lipscomb," Dixon said in a statement. "We were both separated from our respective spouses at the time, we traveled together and exchanged gifts on special occasions. Our brief relationship was personal, and it did not influence my decisions related to matters of city government."

Under penalty of perjury, the city ethics law requires elected officials to report gifts from people who benefit from city business. Dixon has not reported any gifts from Lipscomb in at least the past seven years. His company, Doracon Contracting, has been involved in several high-profile developments in Baltimore, including those that have received financial incentives from the city. Lipscomb, for instance, is involved in the major development of Harbor East and in the revitalization in East Baltimore near Johns Hopkins Hospital.

For months prosecutors have declined to confirm that an investigation is under way, but the documents confirm that the office was investigating crimes of "bribery, perjury and misconduct in office" as late as November. The investigation appears to have widened since the drafting of the affidavit - prosecutors subpoenaed last week new witnesses in the case who were not mentioned in the affidavit, the first of whom testified before a Baltimore grand jury yesterday.

For instance, Patrick Turner, of Baltimore-based Turner Development, testified yesterday. Turner, whose projects include the development of Westport along the Middle Branch, is not named in the November affidavit.

However, the issues raised in the affidavit still appear to be part of the case. As recently as last week, prosecutors were looking for fur coats they claimed in the affidavit that Lipscomb gave to Dixon.

Prosecutors state that Lipscomb gave Dixon a $2,000 gift certificate to Lutherville furrier Mano Swartz in 2003, which Dixon used to purchase a Persian lamb coat and a mink coat, according to the records.

The furrier's owner, Richard Swartz, told prosecutors he remembered "a guy coming into the store and [he] requested that no name [be] put on the certificate." The certificate was purchased with a Lowe's Platinum Visa card that investigators traced back to Doracon after subpoenaing the firm's bank records.

Prosecutors were apparently seeking those same furs on the day they raided Dixon's home in the Hunting Ridge neighborhood on Tuesday. After the raid, which refocused public attention on the investigation, Dixon said she owned "several" furs and declined to say whether they were gifts.

"In Mr. Lipscomb's entire business career he has never asked an elected official, including Ms. Dixon, to do anything for him or his businesses, but has devoted his time and effort on behalf of legacy wealth for minorities, often at great personal disadvantage," Lipscomb's attorney, Gerald P. Martin, said in a statement.

Maryland state prosecutors declined to comment on the case or the documents. An attorney for Dixon, Dale P. Kelberman, also declined to comment.

The documents are part of an affidavit prosecutors crafted in seeking a search warrant they used to raid Doracon's Biddle Street offices last November. A similar affidavit for the raid on Dixon's home is under a court-ordered seal.

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