The mayor's apparent sense of entitlement

January 13, 2009|By DAN RODRICKS | DAN RODRICKS,

Having watched political corruption cases in Maryland and elsewhere over 30 years, I can say this: Indictments are not predictable, but the reactions to them are.

The reactions to the 12-count indictment against Mayor Sheila Dixon of Baltimore sound quite familiar. We've heard in the past few days what we always seem to hear:

* Angry outrage-for-hire by a defense attorney, though, in this case, the live telecast of The Arnold Weiner Show (pre-empting Oprah on WBAL-TV) was something new.

* Supporters of the accused, including other elected officials, ridiculing the charges with "That's all they've got?"

* The accused and supporters complaining that the investigation took too long. (It would have been nice to have had the Dixon investigation conclude before the last city election, but the state prosecutor does not work for the Board of Elections.)

* The prosecution accused of being relentless, overzealous and partisan.

* Supporters of the accused arguing that performance in office is more important than anything else. If someone gets the potholes patched and the crime rate under control, then we should leave them alone; a prosecutor and grand jury will do irreparable harm to a city or state if they tear down an effective mayor or governor.

That last bit, that's what we've heard most often in Sheila Dixon's defense since Friday: She's done a good job as mayor so far, and all this petty indictment does is throw a wet blanket on the city's progress - and just as the Ravens are on a roll and Barack Obama is due here.

Yeah, well, that's true, and it's probably the saddest thing about this. But it doesn't mean the mayor is entitled to a free pass.

Entitlement is one of the problems, from what I see.

It appears to be Sheila Dixon's sixth sense.

In December, when The Baltimore Sun broke news that Baltimore's top officials had quietly voted to approve pay raises for each other in the midst of a municipal budget crunch, what was the mayor's initial reaction to the storm of criticism? She said she was going to keep her $3,700 raise.

Asked whether she would give, as some had suggested, her pay increase to charity, Dixon said: "To be honest with you, no, 2 1/2 percent, based on what I do seven days a week, 24 hours, trying to raise a family, a daughter in college."

In other words: "No way. I'm entitled to this."

Though she ultimately backed off and said she would give at least some of her pay raise to charity, the initial reaction is the one people will remember. And the same sense of entitlement comes through in the behavior she exhibited a few years ago, as City Council president.

Get her sister a job in the council president's office? Why not?

Vote to approve a contract that benefited a company that employed the same sister? What's the problem?

Hire her campaign chairman to do computer work for the council president's office? What's wrong with that?

Engage in a romance with a man whose company is a subcontractor that gets tax breaks from the city? Accept gifts from the guy and fly off with him for a shopping spree? Take a few gift cards intended for the poor?

"I am being unfairly accused," Dixon said after she was indicted. "Time will prove that I have done nothing wrong."

Such is the defiant and unapologetic attitude that frequently comes across.

She hired her sister to work in her office when Dixon was council president, in apparent violation of the city's ethics code. When she had to fire her sister, Dixon told the press: "You all are really discouraging people from wanting to make sacrifices" for public service.

Her sister moved to a new job with a computer management company. Dixon, as a member of the Board of Estimates, used an investigative hearing to press a major city contractor, Comcast, on why it was not awarding more work to the company, Utech, that employed her sister - again, a violation of the ethics code. Asked after the hearing whether her sister worked for Utech, Dixon said yes, then demanded to know who snitched about it to The Sun. Dixon claimed to have disclosed her sister's employment. But her financial disclosure form did not list her sister's Utech job. "You figure it out," she told a reporter.

Between 2001 and 2006, Dixon steered no-bid government work worth at least $600,000 to Dale Clark, her campaign chairman - and most of it without a written contract. A Dixon staffer crafted a way to keep the payments to under $5,000 each so they didn't need approval of the Board of Estimates. Dixon's response at the time? She accused the newspaper of printing lies about her and her staff.

Now she's under indictment on charges - lying and thievery among them - unrelated to the other lapses I just mentioned.

Filching gift cards intended for the poor or not reporting goodies from a contractor-boyfriend seem small, compared with trying to sell Obama's U.S. Senate seat.

But Dixon's actions over time show a pattern - the gift-card filching alone is alleged to have occurred at least three different times over three years - that's hard to dismiss as sloppiness or naivete. They represent something that simply isn't acceptable for a public official.

Sheila Dixon has been in public office for more than two decades. She should have known better, and I'm sure she did. With some pols, that sense of entitlement - that they deserve a little bonus now and then, no matter what the rules say or what the public might think - takes over. It might even be what drives them to run for office in the first place.

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