City Hall: a soap opera in many acts

June 29, 2008|By C. Fraser Smith

Did she violate the public trust, or is she damned by pricey shoes?

Did she steer millions in tax breaks to swanky projects with trendy names on Baltimore's gold coast - or did she simply endorse actions well under way?

Was the state prosecutor, accused of dragging out an investigation for political reasons, absolving himself with a trash can full of innuendo?

These and other titillating questions accompany a threat to the personal renaissance of Baltimore Mayor Sheila Dixon.

Over the last three years, she has thoroughly confounded a universe of critics by doing her job with spirit and passion. She has reinvented herself, suggesting to many that she is the ideal leader for a city in distress.

She knows the devastation of drug abuse from family experience. She repeatedly counsels her constituents to nurture their children. She has been politically courageous, looking past race for a police commissioner who has presided over a sharp drop in homicides.

But now, after Maryland State Prosecutor Robert A. Rohrbaugh (appointed by former Republican Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr.) obtained a search warrant for her house, serious questions have been raised about her relationship with a developer, Ronald H. Lipscomb.

Court documents show Mr. Lipscomb gave Ms. Dixon - then the City Council president - a $2,000 gift certificate to buy furs in 2003.

On a trip to Chicago with Mr. Lipscomb, she spent $4,410 at Giorgio Armani and $570 at Saks Fifth Avenue, where she bought Jimmy Choo sandals. These purchases were made on her personal credit card.

But - and here comes the innuendo - because she was then earning $80,000 a year as council president, the implication is that Mr. Lipscomb must have been subsidizing her purchases. With a grand jury impaneled to examine the case and her lawyers advising caution, the mayor has had little to say in her defense.

The atmosphere is colored by the rarefied atmosphere of high fashion, a romance and million-dollar tax breaks at public expense. But what does it add up to? No one really knows until the prosecutor proceeds, if he does, with an indictment.

Now, it may be instructive to examine what has not happened as a result of the raid and the subsequent disclosures. There has not been a hint of defection by Ms. Dixon's widely praised inner circle. No one is walking away in disgust. One member of the City Council, Mary Pat Clarke - no lock-step supporter of the mayor's - called the raid a "home invasion."

A sampling of city leaders outside City Hall suggests concern, but no panic and no rush to judgment. Reaction tends to fall into this pattern:

A. The allegations against the mayor, measured against the kind of corruption too often found in public life, are trivial.

B. She's doing a good job - better than good. It's shame to have such questions undermine her performance.

C. It might be very bad judgment, but who among us escapes that charge?

History is not her ally. Even before her swearing in, Ms. Dixon had been shadowed by questions about her ethical behavior. Did she steer a $600,000 contract to a former campaign worker? This question apparently triggered the state prosecutor's involvement.

With that history in mind, one member of her mayoral inner circle agreed to join her team but said he would leave at the first suggestion of impropriety. Again, no one has walked away. Fear of a loss of leadership in the city - or partisan considerations - may explain this loyalty. But those same concerns might lead some to seek a change in the mayor's office.

No one minimizes the potential for a trial. And already there is thinking among the mayor's friends and advisers about how she might be defended. Some of the thinking:

*At the crux of the matter apparently is a $13 million payment in lieu of taxes approved with the help of her vote as council president. But this concession, made for many projects the city is promoting, was essentially a done deal before the relationship between the council president and Mr. Lipscomb. It was an arrangement put together by Martin O'Malley when he was mayor of Baltimore and was moving forward on its own momentum - with no special push, as far as we know, from Ms. Dixon. If the prosecutor hopes to make a charge of bribery based on Mr. Lipscomb's gift, he will have to show a clear connection between the gift and the favor done in return. If the matter goes to court, some experienced practitioners say, the case is anything but a slam-dunk.

*Though the travel, the gifts and the expensive purchases raise questions, the record suggests that Ms. Dixon covered part of the costs. The arrangement - even as sketched in the court documents - may have been on the order of "Dutch treat": He paid for this, she paid for that.

As the painful process evolves, supporters say they admire the focused, tough composure exhibited by their mayor. They are hoping, obviously, to see it applied to a city desperately in need of these attributes.

C. Fraser Smith is senior news analyst at WYPR-FM. His column appears Sunday in The Sun. His e-mail is fsmith@wypr.org.

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