Cloud over City Hall

Our view: Indictment puts Mayor Sheila Dixon in a tough position and ignoble club: politicians who have been charged while in office. But she is innocent until proved otherwise

January 11, 2009

Baltimore's political corruption scandal doesn't involve the shakedown of U.S. Senate candidates. The claims are more petty than that, but just as potentially harmful to the public good. When the mayor of Baltimore is indicted on charges of copping gift cards intended for needy families and taking gifts from a developer-boyfriend who had business with the city, voters have a right to feel disappointed, if not angered.

These allegations are the latest arising from a state prosecutor's investigation that has dogged Sheila Dixon for three years. A city grand jury indicted Ms. Dixon on theft, perjury and misconduct in office charges stemming from actions allegedly taken while she was City Council president and later as mayor. She is accused of accepting gifts from developer Ronald H. Lipscomb and not disclosing them as required under city ethics laws. The gifts included fur coats, expensive make-up and a weekend getaway to Chicago.

She is also accused of soliciting more than $1,000 worth of gift cards from two developers to be given to needy families. Instead, the indictment alleges, Ms. Dixon used many of them to buy electronics for herself.

Ms. Dixon wasn't the only one charged last week. The grand jury indicted Mr. Lipscomb and Councilwoman Helen L. Holton in a separate alleged bribery scheme, a surprising turn of events. Mr. Lipscomb's company, Doracon Construction, allegedly paid for a $12,500 political poll for Ms. Holton in exchange for the councilwoman's legislative support of a tax break for a development project he was involved in. They all maintain their innocence.

The charges against Ms. Dixon should have radio talk shows buzzing this week. Her ethics have been questioned in the past, and leaks about the long probe of her behavior suggested that she might be charged with swapping favors to city contractors for money. But none of that was in the charges.

Within an hour of the indictment's release, her lawyer, Arnold M. Weiner, had a few accusations of his own, claiming that State Prosecutor Robert A. Rohrbaugh doesn't know the law and misrepresented his client's use of the gift cards and that all but $25 is accounted for. An aggressive defense is to be expected from the mayor and her feisty lawyer.

What's confounding about all of this is that as mayor, Ms. Dixon has done remarkably well. She has conducted herself with visible respect for the office and sincere regard for her responsibility to the citizens of Baltimore. She has been thoughtful, resolute and decisive, and probably changed a few minds about her ability to run City Hall in the process.

After 21 years in public office, Ms. Dixon isn't going to resign or be drummed out without a fight. That's who she is. But her lawyer was right when he said she needs to remain focused on the city and a swift resolution of the criminal case is in order.

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