Awash In Gift Cards

Our View: Whether Mayor Sheila Dixon Is Found Innocent Or Guilty, Her Theft Trial Reveals Lax Financial Controls And Conflicts Of Interest In City Hall Charity Efforts

November 19, 2009

Now that the prosecution and defense have rested in Mayor Sheila Dixon's trial on charges she stole gift cards meant for the poor, at least one thing is certain: The case has painted an unflattering picture of how charity is handled at City Hall. Let's look at some of the facts not in dispute:

Mayor Dixon called developer Patrick Turner, whose projects benefit from millions in city tax breaks, and asked him to donate gift cards for her to give away to city children. He bought the cards and had them sent to City Hall. Some of them ended up being used by the mayor for her personal use. Her attorney claims they arrived in an unmarked envelope, and she didn't realize they were from Mr. Turner. Of course, she never followed up to find out whether Mr. Turner had sent in the cards, and never acknowledged them in any of the times they've seen each other since. (Mr. Turner said on the stand that she may have sent a thank-you note, but he's not sure.) Yet, a year later, when she called Mr. Turner to make the same request again, he immediately got one of his business partners to comply.

Every year, Mayor Dixon and other city officials conduct a Holly Trolley tour of the city in which they drive to poor neighborhoods and hand out gift cards to the people they meet there, whether they're needy or not. Stacks of gift cards purchased with city funds were handed to Mayor Dixon and others to distribute with no way of knowing whether they actually wound up in the hands of city residents or, as prosecutors discovered, in a Victoria's Secret bag in the mayor's house. (Or in another instance, according to testimony, in the hands of a city worker with a household income in excess of $500,000 a year who was told by the mayor to "buy something nice" for her daughter, which she did.)

In at least one case, a city employee who helped run the Holly Trolley tour did succumb to the temptation of all those gift cards. Lindbergh Carpenter Jr., an assistant housing commissioner who helped organize the Holly Trolley, had about 20 Toys "R" Us gift cards left over after the event. He returned them to his office safe but, later, took some of them to purchase a Nintendo Wii. Had state prosecutors not been investigating Mayor Dixon, his theft would likely have never been discovered. He pleaded guilty and lost his job and is still unemployed.

It's a fine thing that the city helps spread holiday cheer to the poor, particularly at a time like this, when too many families have to go without. But, as Mr. Carpenter noted on the stand, "there really was no accounting system" for how that charity is conducted. Too much opportunity exists for abuse. If city officials want to continue the Holly Trolley, they need to develop a system tracking exactly where all the gift cards and toys come from, which ones are given to which people to distribute, and who winds up receiving them. We would never accept such lax accounting for public money in any other circumstance.

If the mayor wants to augment the municipal charity with private funds, she needs a much more transparent system than calling up people with millions at stake in business with the city and expecting envelopes of gift cards to show up at her office. How could Mr. Turner, whose Westport project is receiving the largest tax incentive Baltimore has ever approved, say no to the woman with the sole power to make or break the deal? How can the public be assured that the mayor is making decisions about developments and tax breaks based on their merits if she is requesting and receiving thousands of dollars in plastic from the people proposing them? Even if she never used gift cards intended for charity for her personal use, she certainly gets political benefits from playing Santa Claus on the Holly Trolley.

City ethics rules prohibit public officials from soliciting money in this manner, unless it is for the benefit of a city program or charity and is specifically approved by the Ethics Board. The reason is to maintain a separation between the officials and people who might do business with the city. Such gifts should also be subjected to accounting rules and public disclosure.

No matter what decision the jury makes on the question of Mayor Dixon's legal culpability, the public needs to render a verdict on the sloppy way business is conducted at City Hall.

Readers respond Creative logic and ethics aside, what's incontestable is that Mayor Dixon and her staff have admitted that they're incapable of tracking and administering publicly earmarked gifts in an open, transparent manner consistent with upholding their fiduciary responsibility. Ms. Dixon's high-powered legal team may get her off, but these actions are indefensible, and she should be held accountable.

Sarah

Stop crying over this. This is a -1 on a scale of 1-10.

Larry G

Regardless of whether you look at this as a sloppy accounting problem or a true case of public corruption, one thing is clearly evident: The defense provided no evidence whatsoever to dispute the charges against the mayor. Anyone can find four character witnesses to tell a jury that they know this woman and she has always struck them as an honest person.

We need to stop sugar coating what the mayor "allegedly" did. Sloppy accounting is not the problem here. Maybe it is symptomatic of bigger corruption problems at City Hall. However, the bottom line is, with no real defense, this jury has no choice but to convict.

Scooter

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