Serious Charges

Our View: Some Will Try To Minimize The Indictments Against Dixon, Paterakis And Holton, But They Raise Issues Critical To Our Trust In The Integrity Of City Government

July 30, 2009

Armchair analysts will no doubt try to play down the significance of the indictments State Prosecutor Robert A. Rohrbaugh has brought this week against Mayor Sheila Dixon, City Councilwoman Helen L. Holton and bakery magnate, developer and political kingmaker John Paterakis. Mr. Rohrbaugh will be cast as a rogue, Kenneth Starr-like prosecutor bent on taking down Baltimore's powerful Democrats and willing to grasp at any legal technicalities to do it.

But the issues raised by those indictments - whether Ms. Dixon perjured herself by failing to disclose thousands of dollars in gifts from someone doing business with the city and whether Mr. Paterakis and Ms. Holton broke campaign finance laws when he helped fund her re-election poll - are fundamental to our trust in our elected officials. There are no laws that it's OK for elected officials to break, and Mr. Rohrbaugh is right to follow the evidence where it goes.

Mr. Paterakis, for all the prominence of the gleaming Harbor East development he built in an old warehouse district between the Inner Harbor and Fells Point, has always been a behind-the-scenes player in Baltimore, with close ties to every mayor from William Donald Schaefer on, as well as governors, county executives, legislators, councilmen and others. He stands accused of helping fellow developer Ronald H. Lipscomb to pay for a poll for Ms. Holton when she was running for re-election in 2007. According to the prosecutor, Mr. Paterakis paid $6,000 of the $12,500 price of the poll, both exceeding the individual limit on contributions and circumventing the councilwoman's campaign account, which prevented the transaction from being made public.

Both offenses are misdemeanors and carry possible punishments of a year in jail (though it's unlikely that Mr. Paterakis would serve time) and fines up to $25,000. Ms. Holton is also indicted on similar charges, stemming, at appears, from evidence provided by Mr. Lipscomb, who accepted a plea deal for his role in the incident and agreed to cooperate with prosecutors.

The fact that Mr. Paterakis is not charged with high crimes doesn't mean these charges are unimportant. The reason we have campaign finance laws is to prevent interested parties from wielding undue influence over the political process and to make sure the public knows who is funding politicians' campaigns. If we didn't pursue possible infractions of those laws, it would destroy whatever tenuous confidence the public has in the integrity of City Hall.

Although the indictment makes no mention of it, Mr. Paterakis was certainly an interested party when it came to Ms. Holton's actions as a councilwoman. At the time that she met with Mr. Paterakis and Mr. Lipscomb to solicit funds for the poll, the committee Ms. Holton chaired was considering granting millions in tax breaks to part of the Harbor East development. Earlier, Mr. Rohrbaugh had indicted Ms. Holton on charges of bribery, but a judge threw them out because they relied on Ms. Holton's votes as a councilwoman as evidence of the quid pro quo, a violation of a long-held principle that lawmakers' official acts cannot be used against them.

For the same reason, those who minimize the charges Mr. Rohrbaugh has brought against Ms. Dixon are wrong. Even if the gift cards she is accused of misusing don't amount to a great deal of money, and even though the gifts from Mr. Lipscomb she is accused of failing to report - in charges that were initially thrown out but which a grand jury restored Wednesday - were given while the two were in a romantic relationship, it is crucial for the citizens of Baltimore to know whether the mayor obeys the law.

Mr. Rohrbaugh's critics do have a point about one thing: His three-year investigation has done little to settle the question of whether the alleged misconduct is an isolated incident or part of a pattern of routine corruption. Is there a pay-to-play system at City Hall, and if so, how widespread is it? Mr. Rohrbaugh has good reason not to answer those questions before his cases go to trial, but eventually, the citizens need to know what he has found.

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