Turner says he thought cards were for charity

Developer says he bought $1,000 worth in late '05, thinking they would be used for children's causes

November 17, 2009|By Annie Linskey and Julie Bykowicz

Baltimore developer Patrick Turner testified in Mayor Sheila Dixon's criminal theft trial Monday that he purchased $1,000 in gift cards just before Christmas in 2005, believing the cards would be distributed to "the children of Baltimore."

Turner also testified that he asked his business partner, Glenn Charlow, to do the same the next year, also thinking that the cards would be given to City Hall for charity.

The developer's account provides a critical element in the case against the mayor, as prosecutors try to prove that Dixon solicited gift cards for needy families and then used them for herself.

Dixon, a Democrat, is charged with seven theft-related counts in a trial that began last week. She also faces a separate trial, scheduled for March, on perjury charges that she failed to report gifts from her former boyfriend, developer Ronald H. Lipscomb. If convicted of any charge, she could be removed from office, lose her $83,000 annual pension and face fines or jail time.

Prosecutors called eight witnesses yesterday, including Turner's business partner, Charlow, who sat silent in the witness chair for 15 minutes as prosecutors and defense attorneys met privately at the judge's bench. Charlow was excused without testifying but may be called back later in the trial.

The state used its witnesses to paint an unflattering picture of Dixon as a frequent shopper who kept stacks of gift cards in her West Baltimore home, many of which could not be traced by investigators.

Defense attorneys tried to plant seeds of doubt about the developer's testimony.

Lead attorney Arnold M. Weiner had said in his opening statement that Dixon viewed the gift cards, including the ones from Turner, as personal gifts to her from Lipscomb.

Under cross-examination by Dixon attorney Dale P. Kelberman, Turner, the first developer to testify at the trial, said he did not remember how his stack of 40 gift cards was delivered to City Hall and said it was possible that he put them in a blank envelope that did not bear his name.

Turner, whose $1.4 billion planned community of offices, stores and housing in Westport is benefiting from the largest tax incentive the city has ever approved, appeared uncomfortable on the stand. He gripped the wooden arms of the witness chair and smoothed his mustache and beard, sometimes quickly dabbing his lips with a napkin. His face reddened at times, and he frequently glanced toward the defense table, where Dixon sat scribbling notes.

The developer testified that he bought gift cards in December 2005 at Best Buy and Target because the stores "were close to each other" and "it was suggested that that type of store would be an appropriate place" to purchase cards. Asked why he made the purchases, he said, "It was Christmas gifts for children."

Though a witness for prosecutors, Turner said he could not remember how or when Dixon contacted him about donating gift cards in 2005. His cell phone records showed that Dixon called him several times around the time he purchased the cards, but he said he did not remember speaking with her about buying the cards.

In an effort to remind him, prosecutors flashed copies of Turner's American Express credit card bill from December 2005 on a screen to show the jury that he had scrawled "office" and "charity" next to the reference to his Target $500 gift card purchase. He wrote the same note on the next line of the credit card bill, which showed that he bought $500 in cards from Best Buy.

Just before Christmas in 2006, Turner received a call from Dixon while he was on vacation in the Cayman Islands, his phone records showed. He said he did "not recall" the details of the phone call but testified that it led him to call Charlow, his business partner on the $150 million Silo Point condo project in Locust Point.

The courtroom was nearly empty Monday morning but filled slowly through the day.

City Councilwoman Rochelle "Rikki" Spector, a Dixon supporter who listened to Turner testify, called the trial "a very important situation for council people." She said that she "didn't want to just sit in my office and pontificate."The day began with prosecutors laying out evidence for the charge that the mayor pilfered gift cards from the city housing department's 2007 Holly Trolley Tour, at which she and housing department officials hand out Toys "R" Us gift cards to children in several low-income neighborhoods.

Lindbergh Carpenter Jr., a former housing employee who ran the program, testified that "there really was no accounting system" for the cards he bought and distributed using taxpayer money. He pleaded guilty in January to stealing from the same batch of cards at issue in Dixon's trial.

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