A bigger case?

Dixon probe could widen to 3 more developments

March 27, 2009|By Annie Linskey | Annie Linskey,annie.linskey@baltsun.com

The City Hall corruption case against Baltimore Mayor Sheila Dixon and other officials could widen to include additional development projects, one of several fresh details revealed Thursday when prosecutors and defense attorneys met in open court for the first time.

Lawyers for developer Ronald H. Lipscomb said prosecutors are interested in his involvement in three city projects not previously targeted in January's indictment: Orchard Ridge, Frankford Estates and Uplands. Lipscomb's contracting company, Doracon, worked on all three ventures.

Additionally, State Prosecutor Robert A. Rohrbaugh introduced evidence showing that Lipscomb sent an e-mail to colleagues bragging about his ability to extract millions of dollars in tax breaks from City Hall.

According to the message read by Rohrbaugh, Lipscomb told colleagues he had "drag" in securing a $16 million tax break on a project. It was not clear when the e-mail was sent or to which project it referred.

Lipscomb has acknowledged a personal relationship with Dixon. Prosecutors have also charged City Councilwoman Helen L. Holton, who headed a council committee that oversaw tax breaks, in the corruption probe. She is accused of helping Lipscomb secure favorable tax treatment in exchange for a bribe.

Dixon, Lipscomb and Holton have proclaimed their innocence. None appeared in court Thursday.

The mayor kept a busy public schedule, however, hosting a breakfast fundraiser at which donors who paid $250 or $1,000 could learn about a west-side development project.

The indictment accused Dixon of failing to report lavish gifts from Lipscomb on ethics forms, stealing gift cards intended for needy families and misuse of office. Holton stands accused of insisting that Lipscomb pay for a $12,500 poll in exchange for her support of projects that included Harbor East.

Though the morning's hearing centered on motions about the types of information the state must provide to the defense, the lawyers traded friendly banter and also seemed eager to show off their courtroom skills and argue the meat of the case.

The state prosecutor's office trundled in seven poster boards displaying enlarged and highlighted documents.

Dixon's lead attorney, Arnold Weiner, at one point grinned and grabbed some of the boards. "I may want to refer to a few of these myself," he said, suggesting that the state's arguments could also be used to benefit his client.

Defense attorneys fretted that the case might be widened at trial and about the prosecutor's interest in the three additional projects."What they are trying to do here is leave their options open," said Steven Wrobel, a defense attorney for Lipscomb. "There are a lot of projects. We should not have to guess at which projects the grand jury says there was a bribe attached to."

Orchard Ridge is a $118 million, 467-unit affordable housing development near Belair-Edison. Lipscomb worked with Pennrose Development and that team received city approval in May 2005. It has not previously been associated with the corruption case.

As City Council president, Dixon shepherded a series of bills supporting Frankford Estates, an east-side housing complex. Lipscomb's firm was a co-developer, and the mayor had previously acknowledged "twisting some arms" to make the project go forward.

Lipscomb's firm was also picked to develop Uplands, a $200 million project in West Baltimore. He was awarded the contract despite a recommendation from an independent panel that another firm do that work.

Defense attorneys sought to define Lipscomb's role in almost a dozen development projects that have benefited from tax breaks in the past five years.

They repeatedly asked to know which of Lipscomb's many limited liability companies and partnerships the prosecutors would use at trial to show that the developer was conducting business with the city - an important nuance since some defense attorneys are arguing that Lipscomb never technically did business with the city in the years in question.

Under that argument, defense attorneys say, Dixon would not have to report gifts from him and would not have perjured herself on city ethics forms, as has been alleged.

Weiner noted that six attorneys from his firm spent three days digging through boxes of evidentiary documents and developed a list of roughly 125 partnerships in which Lipscomb and one other developer had some stake. Prosecutors seemed to agree that determining which Lipscomb entity was doing what is complicated.

"The LLCs morph into each other," Rohrbaugh said. Rohrbaugh offered to give defense attorneys a list of projects that the case centers on, but does not want specify the LLCs. "I can narrow it to real estate projects," Rohrbaugh said. "Mr. Lipscomb has a wealth of creative lawyers when it comes to LLCs."

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