Time For Answers

Our View: Mayor Sheila Dixon Promises The Truth About The Accusations Against Her Will Come Out In Court

Let's Hope So, Because We've Gotten Little Of It So Far

November 08, 2009

The first public corruption trial against Mayor Sheila Dixon, on charges of theft and embezzlement in connection with the use of gift cards meant for the city's needy at Christmastime, begins Monday. Ever the fighter, ever defiant, Mayor Dixon has said she will attend her trial (as well as the one yet to come on charges of perjury), and in recent days she has said she is looking forward to it because the truth will finally come out.

We certainly hope so - the mayor is absolutely right to suggest that in this case so far, truth has been in short supply. We've seen plenty of evidence from the prosecutor: dates, times, amounts. We have gotten glimpses of testimony from those whose own potential legal liability has made them cooperative. And we've heard plenty of theories from Ms. Dixon's lawyers about whether any of the mayor's alleged conduct is actually against the law. But of the things Baltimore residents really need to know about their mayor - what her actions say about her moral compass, whether she regrets anything she's done or whether she feels her conduct has been beyond reproach - we have heard precious little.

There's probably not much chance that we'll get answers like those in this trial or the next one. A criminal trial is suited to answering narrow questions of legal guilt or innocence, not the broad ethical ones that matter in the world of politics and governance. In fact, the threat of prosecution has probably hindered any deeper accounting; under sound legal advice from her many excellent lawyers, Mayor Dixon has said little about the charges she faces other than to proclaim her innocence. And the focus of Maryland State Prosecutor Robert Rohrbaugh has, for good reason, been on those actions for which he has been able to secure indictments, not on other questionable conduct in Ms. Dixon's past.

But as long as the mayor is offering up the hope for truth, here are the questions we'd like to get real answers to:

* When, if ever, did Ms. Dixon conclude that her relationship with developer Ronald H. Lipscomb was fundamentally incompatible with her role in city government? Ms. Dixon had a brief affair with Mr. Lipscomb, one of the city's most prominent developers, when she was City Council president. Prosecutors say he spent thousands of dollars on her for travel and shopping sprees, even as he was appearing before the Board of Estimates, which she chaired, to seek millions in city tax breaks for his projects. In one case, prosecutors say, she voted on one of his projects in the morning and hopped on a train with him to New York that afternoon.

This is a prime case in which the question of right and wrong has been subverted by the question of legal guilt or innocence. Dating a developer isn't illegal, but failing to report on ethics forms that you've received gifts from someone doing business with the city is. Consequently, the issue has devolved into arguments that are absurd in the real world but crucial in court: Can prosecutors prove that Ms. Dixon knew about Mr. Lipscomb's business; and does what he did, under the definition in Baltimore's ethics law, technically constitute doing business with the city? Those may be the crucial questions in court, but they aren't the ones to which Baltimore residents deserve answers.

* Regardless of whether prosecutors prove that Ms. Dixon wound up using gift cards solicited for the needy to buy electronics for her family, does she see any ethical problem with calling developers whose fortunes are tied to the permits and tax breaks she controls and asking them to make those donations in the first place? Does she think they could legitimately say no? And if the prosecutor does prove that she used those gift cards, what does that indicate about her understanding of the separation of her personal life and her professional responsibility?

* When Ms. Dixon insisted as City Council president that more municipal business go to a company that employed her sister, did she know that the firm was bogus and incapable of doing the work in question? Either way, does she think she was justified in advocating public policies that would directly benefit her family? Although Mr. Rohrbaugh got a guilty plea and a pledge of cooperation from Utech President Mildred Boyer, he has filed no charges related to Ms. Dixon's advocacy on behalf of her sister's one-time employer. That doesn't mean Mayor Dixon has nothing to answer for. The same goes for the case of Dale G. Clark, Ms. Dixon's former campaign chairman, who was paid $600,000 over six years to develop a computer system for the City Council. He had no contract for five of those years and was instructed by Ms. Dixon's staff to submit bills in increments of less than $5,000, the amount that requires Board of Estimates approval. No charges against the mayor have been filed in connection with Mr. Clark's work, but that doesn't make it ethical.

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