'Ah, Baltimore,' Dixon indictment another exasperating moment

January 10, 2009|By JEAN MARBELLA

It was another "ah, Baltimore" moment. Ever get those? You get exasperated by some bureaucratic runaround at City Hall, and you sigh and steam and maybe that vein on your forehead starts to throb. But after a while, you learn to just surrender - "ah, Baltimore" - and accept you're going to have dial one more number or go to one other office or just do without whatever it is you thought you needed.

That parking ticket I successfully fought but that popped up every time I had to renew my car registration? "Ah, Baltimore." That number in the phone book I called to ask about the new single-stream recycling program that instead plays a message touting the "new" blue-bag program that it had replaced? "Ah, Baltimore."

That's what I thought yesterday during one of the points defense attorney Arnold Weiner made during his bravura opening arguments in the case of The State of Maryland v. Sheila Ann Dixon. No, the trial hasn't actually started - the mayor was only indicted yesterday - but with the media before him as a sort of practice jury, Weiner began trying the case anyway, complete with exhibits.

Using a red marker to underline operative words in the city's ethics ordinance, Weiner argued that developer Ronald Lipscomb - indicted earlier this week on an accusation of bribing a city councilwoman - didn't fit the definition of someone doing business with the city.

No, Lipscomb was not doing business with the city, Weiner said, because the ethics code requires that the city maintain a list of all entities doing business with the city and ... the city does not maintain such a list.

Ah, Baltimore.

Lipscomb is delicately referred to in the indictment of Dixon as Developer A, masking his identity to just about no one who has followed the saga of Sheiron - or should we Brangelinize them as Dixcomb? - and that fleeting affair that torridly mixed tax credits with fur coats, days at the Board of Estimates and nights at the Ritz.

And now, gift cards.

Yes, the indictment handed up by the grand jury yesterday brought yet another form of economic stimulus to the story: Dixon is charged with the theft of gift cards that she solicited from Developers A and B - another country heard from! - for the "needy" of the city. To anyone who heard Dixon defend her recent and surreptitiously enacted pay raise - she's a single mom with a kid in college - it will come as no surprise that, according to the state prosecutor, she apparently counts herself in this group.

Dixon used some of those gift cards, the indictment says, to buy various electronics and accessories, from iPod Nano bling to a PlayStation Portable to an Xbox 360.

There were other excruciatingly embarrassing details, wads of cash being deposited here, Amex bills being paid there, phone calls made, BlackBerry messages received, and on and on.

"There wasn't a bedsheet he failed to look under," Weiner charged of the state prosecutor's long-running investigation of Dixon.

That actually makes the indictment look sexier than it is, but in actuality, it was more like no gift card left unused before its expiration date.

So this is what we have, after years of investigations that started and stopped and started again. The U.S. attorney's office descended, looked around and left without charging anyone. The city's own ethics board averted its eyes and declined to act. A series of grand juries met, presumably listened to allegations of cozy contract-awarding practices at City Hall, and went back home without a peep.

And the citizens of Baltimore, not privy to whatever went on within all those closed-door investigations, went ahead and overwhelmingly voted Sheila Dixon into the mayor's office a little more than a year ago.

Finally, this grand jury, on the last day of its term, did something.

Weiner argues we've been taken "on a journey that was nothing but a big circle." Not quite, because we do have some pretty serious charges on the table now.

And yet, there still remain great gaps. If Dixon took these gifts from Lipscomb, what did he get in return? The indictment is silent on that, and Weiner was quick to point out that Dixon was not charged with bribery - or, as he more colorfully put it, "the dog that didn't bark."

No, it didn't, but neither did it simply lie there and think, "ah, Baltimore."

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