In Court, Working Without A Net

April 24, 2009|By LAURA VOZZELLA

In one corner, defense lawyers explaining away a developer's expensive gifts to two city officials with showstopping legal gymnastics.

In the other, a prosecutor who had courtroom spectators on the edge of their seats, but only because she shouldn't have been working without a net.

Retired Howard County Circuit Judge Dennis Sweeney held a hearing Thursday on motions to dismiss the criminal cases against Mayor Sheila Dixon, City Councilwoman Helen Holton and developer Ron Lipscomb.

All of the defense attorneys performed ably, but Lipscomb attorney Steve Wrobel pulled off one of the most creative feats. His client is accused of paying for a $12,500 poll for Holton. Prosecutors call that a bribe because Lipscomb had projects before the council and a committee Holton chaired.

But Wrobel said the telephone survey constituted free speech because it was a "push poll."

"The questions were structured in such a way to push those respondents into Helen Holton's camp," Wrobel said.

People normally don't want their fingerprints on push polls. They're a dirty trick, a way of promoting a candidate under the guise of a neutral telephone survey.

But Lipscomb would sooner cop to push polling than bribery.

Wrobel compared Lipscomb's bankrolling the poll to someone who, swept up by a politician's call to "go out, and carry forth my message of hope in the community," goes out his own and spends $10,000 to set up a Web site promoting the candidate.

The judge was skeptical because it is alleged that Holton ordered the poll herself and just had the bill sent to Lipscomb.

"Well, it looks a little funnier here," Sweeney said.

Score one for the prosecution - until the prosecution actually weighed in.

Assistant State Prosecutor Tamara Gustave appeared alongside State Prosecutor Robert Rohrbaugh and his deputy, Thomas McDonough. She was, by far, the liveliest member of the prosecution team, twice opening with dog anecdotes.

But she stepped in it in a big way when Sweeney posed a hypothetical question. Say a developer likes a politician who supports the kind of development projects he does, the judge said. Say the developer makes legal campaign donations to the candidate, maybe even meets with him, and says if the candidate wins, he hopes he can be a part of his plans for the city.

"Why isn't that a bribe?" the judge asked Gustave.

"I'm not sure it's not," she replied.

Audible gasps in the courtroom.

"Whoa," from the judge.

After some whispering with colleagues, Gustave tried to recover.

"Sorry," she said. "I misunderstood the question."

Not long before, the judge had asked Gustave to confirm that the state's case against Lipscomb would not show an explicit quid pro quo.

Her reply: "My co-counsel would kill me if I answered this question right now."

I'm sure Gustave's colleagues won't do her in. More likely, if Gustave doesn't get with it, she does in the case.

'This is totally better'

What was a nice girl like Omarosa Manigault-Stallworth doing in Baltimore City Circuit Court, watching a gun-possession case unfold Wednesday?

Trying to keep a low profile.

The Apprentice participant, who dates a lawyer in the case, had stuffed her long hair into a jaunty little cap. Court security made her take it off, blowing her cover.

"Oh, no," she thought. "It's over."

But Manigault-Stallworth wasn't mobbed in the courtroom. When the proceedings were over, she was greeted only by yours truly and her boyfriend, attorney J. Wyndal Gordon.

Manigault-Stallworth had flown in from Los Angeles for what was supposed to have been a motions hearing. It turned into a bench trial. Gordon's client, Davon Steele, and his three co-defendants were acquitted. They had been in custody since January 2008.

Manigault-Stallworth, who met Gordon through a mutual friend but wasn't saying how long they've dated, said it was worth the trip.

"He's brilliant," she said. "He was so passionate about this case. ... This is so fascinating. We see the Law and Order stuff but this is totally better."

She said she'd like to take Gordon to work with her sometime.

"I think he could take Donald."

'Gone swimming'

Michael Phelps seems to be back on the straight and narrow, judging by his Twitter Tweet this week: "Gone swimming! Start living a healthier lifestyle! Healthy eating + Healthy living!" ... Congressional Quarterly ponders a Martin O'Malley-Bob Ehrlich rematch in a story this week. ...

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