Bare-knuckle defense a hallmark of Dixon attorney

January 12, 2009|By Annie Linskey and Julie Bykowicz | Annie Linskey and Julie Bykowicz and, and

Hours after Baltimore Mayor Sheila Dixon was indicted on charges of theft, perjury and misuse of office, she headed to the industrial-chic offices of her lead defense attorney, where dozens of reporters and photographers had gathered.

Instead of perfunctory statements of innocence and a caution to wait for a trial, the public heard a full-throated response to the unseemly allegations that have swirled around Dixon as a nearly three-year probe of City Hall corruption plodded along.

The star was not Dixon, who read a short statement, but her lawyer: Arnold M. Weiner, veteran defender of indicted politicians, including former Maryland Gov. Marvin Mandel.

Weiner roared for more than half an hour, calling the prosecution's case "ludicrous" and the indictment "puffery." Two local TV stations carried the news conference live as he described State Prosecutor Robert A. Rohrbaugh as "relentlessly pursuing" the mayor and taking taxpayers on a long and expensive journey that was "nothing but a big circle."

It seemed all of Baltimore was watching.

Some said the display carried risks of overly politicizing a complex and sensitive case and tainting the Baltimore jury pool that would hear Dixon's case, should it go to trial.

But a vigorous attack against the opposition, others noted, comes right from the Weiner playbook.

"He is, and always has been, very good at leveling the playing field," said Steven A. Allen, a longtime white-collar defense attorney and former Weiner partner.

In an interview yesterday in the same Clipper Mill office that hosted the unusual televised event, Weiner was unapologetic. He said that as negative items dribbled out of the investigation, the time had come for a strong push-back.

"It seemed to me, in her position as a leading public official, she needed to have a statement made on her behalf that put those charges in their proper perspective," Weiner said.

That perspective included a concerted effort to undermine not just the evidence against Dixon, charged with theft and perjury related to gifts from a one-time boyfriend and developer who has received city tax breaks, but an assault on the prosecutor himself.

"What Arnold is saying - and I'll add that he is very effective at this strategy, which I've seen him use before - is, 'Don't accept everything at face value. Something is wrong with the prosecutor's case, and you should be suspicious of the evidence,' " said Allen, who watched the Friday news conference and said he had a "good feel" for how Weiner develops cases.

"He is very good at ferreting out what's wrong with a case."

Weiner's defense included pointed references to the fact that the state prosecutor was appointed by Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., a Republican. Dixon is a Democrat, as is every other elected official in Baltimore.

Stephen L. Snyder, a prominent local defense attorney and former Weiner partner, said that holding such a news conference is unusual and could be a hint that Weiner believes a judge will dismiss the case.

"Normally, you hear a defense attorney stating that, 'My client is innocent and it will be resolved in court,' without the attorney going into great depth about the misadventures of the prosecutor," Snyder said.

"Arnold's perception is that the prosecutor's case, after three years of intense investigation, is pretty petty and weak. He felt airing that out in the Baltimore City community would serve his client well."

Discussing his accusations that the prosecutor is biased against the mayor, Weiner said yesterday: "I thought it was fair comment. Prosecutors don't just drop down from the sky."

With a full head of white hair and a smooth forehead, Weiner, who is 75, could pass for a man 15 years his junior. He seems to possess the stamina of youth: last year, he said, he pulled four all-nighters preparing cases.

He took the lead on Dixon's legal team in mid-July, about a month after investigators with the State Prosecutor's Office raided the mayor's home. He joined Dale P. Kelberman, a public corruption defender with Miles and Stockbridge, to mount the mayor's defense. Weiner declined to say how much his representation is costing the mayor.

Weiner reads books on a Kindle, frequently consults his BlackBerry and works out of a suite of offices with exposed brick, steel I-beams and concrete. It abuts Woodberry Kitchen, one of the few city restaurants where it is difficult to get a reservation.

Weiner says he picked private practice over a career in one of the city's rarefied law firms because he can control his cases and his hours.

He has represented Oprah Winfrey (he won't say why), the Baltimore Orioles, a Ravens player, a racehorse and a man who was shot in the head by the FBI.

The only child of a grocer, Weiner grew up in Baltimore in an apartment on North Avenue above the store. He met his wife, Arleen, on summer break when he was in the first year of college at the University of Maryland. The two taught at the same camp - he was instructing arts and crafts.

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