Lawyers for Baltimore Mayor Sheila Dixon and two others charged in City Hall corruption cases appeared in court Thursday, arguing that indictments brought by state prosecutors are confusing, don't conform to law and should be tossed out.
Dixon defense attorney Arnold M. Weiner accused prosecutors of mixing up two different sections of the city ethics code before a grand jury.
Prosecutors have alleged that Dixon - who was not in court Thursday - perjured herself by failing to report on ethics forms lavish gifts from developer Ronald H. Lipscomb. The Democratic mayor was charged in January with 12 counts of felony theft, perjury, fraud and misconduct in office, becoming the city's first sitting mayor to be criminally indicted.
Attorneys representing Lipscomb and City Councilwoman Helen Holton also argued that charges against them should be dismissed. Holton was the only defendant in court Thursday, appearing with her father and several friends.
Holton was charged with accepting a bribe from Lipscomb in the form of a political poll, in exchange for favorable tax treatment for development projects.
Weiner said that disclosure of gifts is required only under a narrowly defined section of the ethics code. The section relates to gifts received from a person who entered into a contract with the city during the one-year ethics reporting period.
Violations of other parts of the ethics code, which prohibit an official from soliciting or accepting gifts from anyone doing business with the city, are punishable only by civil penalties, Weiner said. Prosecutors misled the grand jury that Dixon violated the criminal section of the code, Weiner said. "Own up to your mistake," Weiner told State Prosecutor Robert A. Rohrbaugh. "If you want to re-indict, then re-indict."
Rohrbaugh countered that both he and the grand jury were fully aware of the nuances of the ethics code, showing how he had read summaries of the law Weiner cited to the grand jurors.
Rohrbaugh noted that the criminal statute also requires Dixon to disclose gifts from those "regulated" by the city - a category that he said includes Ronald H. Lipscomb, who briefly dated the mayor and paid for clothes and trips.
The prosecutor said Dixon chose not to disclose the gifts from Lipscomb for a simple reason: She knew that the ethics code prohibited her from receiving them.
Retired Howard County Circuit Judge Dennis Sweeney appeared unconvinced by defense arguments that the city's lack of a proper list of companies doing business with the city would have prevented Dixon from properly filling out ethics forms.
Lipscomb's lawyer, Steve Wrobel, said paying for the poll amounted to free speech because it was a "push poll," a type of survey that contains leading questions intended to change opinion.
"The questions were structured in such a way to push those respondents into Helen Holton's camp," he said.
He said the poll was an "independent expenditure" for "political advocacy."
Wrobel said developers give money to politicians all the time, often using various limited liability corporations - a "popular loophole," he called it - to avoid contribution limits. He said they are seeking "influence," but that does not constitute a bribe.
"Let's all be adults here. This is the system we live in," he said.
He compared Lipscomb's payment for the poll to someone responding to a candidate's urging to "go out, and carry forth my message of hope in the community" by spending $10,000 to set up a Web site promoting the candidate.
"Well, it looks a little funnier here," the judge said.