Dixon's criminal trial could be in September

Judge meets with defense and prosecutors in a closed hearing

Holton's lawyers ask that her case be dismissed

March 11, 2009|By Annie Linskey | Annie Linskey,annie.linskey@baltsun.com

Baltimore Mayor Sheila Dixon's trial on theft, perjury and misuse-of-office charges could be held in early September, a Circuit Court judge ruled yesterday after meeting for the first time with prosecutors and defense attorneys.

While the hearing was closed to the public, fresh details have emerged from court files that have grown thicker since indictments were handed down earlier this year in a wide-ranging City Hall corruption probe that also implicates City Councilwoman Helen L. Holton and developer Ronald H. Lipscomb.

Court files show that lawyers for Holton have formally asked for dismissal of bribery charges against her, saying that the state improperly pinned its case on a set of her votes, which her lawyers call "protected acts." State law "immunizes a legislator from having to answer for legislative acts," according to Holton's attorneys.

The argument could be persuasive, said Steven Levin, a former federal prosecutor and a partner in the law firm Levin & Gallagher. "Bribery is a very difficult charge to prove, but if the state is going to prove it, it must do so without using acts protected by the speech and debate clause," Levin wrote in an e-mail after reviewing the motion to dismiss.

Levin said unprotected acts include helping a constituent get access to key government officials or secure government contracts, and the contents of speeches or newsletters. "The state could use these political acts as evidence of bribery," Levin said. "But official legislative acts cannot be used."

Lipscomb's attorney, Gerard Martin, also asked that bribery charges be dropped, arguing that a $12,500 poll conducted for Holton and paid for by Lipscomb was a campaign contribution. Martin also argues that the prosecutors have not connected the poll to specific acts by Holton, said Levin, who reviewed the motion.

State law limits donors to contributions of $4,000 per candidate and $10,000 to all candidates in a four-year cycle.

According to a scheduling calendar issued by retired Howard County Circuit Judge Dennis M. Sweeney, the mayor's criminal case would be heard second among the three cases brought in January by the state prosecutor's office, which spent nearly three years investigating spending by city officials.

Dixon is accused of perjury for failing to report furs, trips and other gifts from Lipscomb on her city ethics forms. Her attorney, Arnold Weiner, has previously said that she was not required to disclose those gifts because she did not receive them in a calendar year when Lipscomb entered into a contract with the city, as specified by the ethics code.

Also included in court files was previously secret grand jury testimony from former City Councilman Keiffer J. Mitchell Jr. Speaking about the case against Holton, where prosecutors allege she shepherded a tax break through her committee in exchange for the poll, Mitchell explained to jurors that the City Council "has very little power." But the chair of a committee can decide the fate of legislation, he said. Mitchell attended a July committee hearing where one of the tax credits at issue was voted on, but abstained.

"I was in a very heated mayoral campaign," he said to the grand jurors, explaining his vote. "There wasn't enough information. ... It didn't smell right."

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