Evidence, sympathies could vie in Dixon case

January 13, 2009|By Julie Bykowicz and Annie Linskey | Julie Bykowicz and Annie Linskey,julie.bykowicz@baltsun.com and annie.linskey@baltsun.com

Indicted Baltimore Mayor Sheila Dixon's first court hearing is scheduled for three weeks from today, but attorneys have already begun dissecting the case against her, with some outlining bountiful defense options that could prove effective in a largely supportive city.

Her own attorney has already come out swinging against the corruption charges she faces, arguing that the heart of the prosecution is based on a "monstrous legal mistake." But others who have prosecuted white-collar crime called the allegations against her "straightforward" and potentially easy to prove.

Dixon, 55, is scheduled for arraignment Feb. 3 in Baltimore Circuit Court; her attorneys have said they will enter a plea on her behalf so that she doesn't have to appear.

The first Baltimore mayor indicted while in office, Dixon, a Democrat, faces 12 counts of felony theft, perjury, fraud and misconduct in office. She is accused of failing to disclose lavish gifts from a prominent developer who is also an ex-boyfriend, and stealing gift cards that developers donated to her office to be distributed to needy families. Most of the alleged crimes occurred between 2004 and 2006, while she was City Council president.

Warren A. Brown, a defense attorney with about 30 years of experience in front of Baltimore juries, said city residents might view the accusations as "largely forgivable transgressions."

"What the prosecutors are saying is that there was a breach of public trust, but I don't think jurors are going to buy that," he said. "Jurors here tend to render verdicts that represent how they feel about someone, and that may at times be inconsistent with or contrary to Maryland law."

He said Dixon - a black woman in a majority-black city and Baltimore's first female mayor - has a reservoir of good will and is viewed by many as a "humble public servant." In her first two years as mayor, she has focused on ending homelessness, bringing down the city's stubborn homicide rate and cleaning up blighted neighborhoods.

But the facts of the case against her are strong, according to some legal experts.

David Gray, an assistant professor at the University of Maryland School of Law, said the 31-page indictment prepared by State Prosecutor Robert A. Rohrbaugh constructed a detailed timeline to substantiate the theft allegations regarding the gift cards, electronically tracing them to find out when and where they were used.

"It's the kind of evidence that's not open to a lot of interpretation," he said. "The Maryland prosecutor has clearly chosen the best facts for his claims."

Lead Dixon attorney Arnold M. Weiner will probably try to undermine Rohrbaugh's case by alleging the Republican prosecutor is going after Democrats and by calling the evidence dubious, attorneys and legal experts said. But in a 30-minute news conference after the indictment Friday, Weiner also responded to specific allegations.

He said the perjury charges for failing to disclose gifts from developer Ronald H. Lipscomb on her ethics forms were flawed. Weiner displayed a page of Baltimore City Code - Section 2-5 - that he says erases the need for Dixon to report anything she received from Lipscomb.

"This ordinance is very specific," Weiner said, denying that it covers someone like Lipscomb, "who owns a company that in turn has a minority interest in somebody else's company that is run by somebody else."

He chastised Rohrbaugh for overlooking "the most critical sections" of the code.

But Weiner did not mention another section that prohibits acceptance of gifts from "any person" who "has a financial interest that might be substantially and materially affected ... by the performance or nonperformance of the public servant's officials duties."

Lipscomb allegedly gave Dixon, then City Council president, more than $15,348 in gifts, including a $2,000 gift certificate to a local furrier, plane fare to Chicago and a stay at a luxe New York City hotel, according to the indictment. Lipscomb owns Doracon Contracting, which had projects that were awarded millions of dollars in city tax breaks about the time he was allegedly giving gifts to the council president.

Lipscomb also has a financial stake in the Inner Harbor East redevelopment project.

Lipscomb was not indicted in the Dixon case. But he and Councilwoman Helen L. Holton were charged by the same prosecutor last week with bribery. He is accused of paying for a $12,500 political poll at Holton's request at a time when she was chairwoman of a council committee overseeing tax incentives.

Those charges came from Rohrbaugh's nearly three-year investigation of alleged City Hall corruption.

Defense attorney Kenneth W. Ravenell, who is representing Lipscomb, said he found the charge that Dixon failed to report gifts from the developer to be "a ridiculous interpretation" of city law.

"It's a legal stretch," Ravenell said, noting that the state prosecutor originally was pursuing bribery charges against Dixon.

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