A house of (gift) cards at City Hall

The getting and the giving of these costly pieces of plastic raise questions

November 29, 2009|By Annie Linskey and Julie Bykowicz | Baltimore Sun reporters

Baltimore Mayor Sheila Dixon's theft case, which remains before a jury this week, has shed light on little-known charitable efforts she ran from City Hall with few controls over solicitations and vague guidelines for who should benefit.

As City Council president, Dixon requested or distributed donations for needy families, frequently in the form of gift cards, courtroom testimony and grand jury records show. Others who have held that office say they did not handle or seek donations in the same way.

Dixon, a Democrat, is accused by State Prosecutor Robert A. Rohrbaugh of stealing some of the gift cards intended for charity and using them for personal items. She has denied the charges, and jurors will begin their sixth day of deliberations on Monday.

The trial has raised questions, however, about how the charity that flowed through her office has been handled.

It has also raised concerns about the Holly Trolley, a separate holiday season giveaway program - revived when Dixon became mayor - which "had no accounting system," one person involved with the operations of the event testified in court. In another instance, gift cards requested for charity appeared with no notice on the desks of staffers inside City Hall, for their own use.

Some organizations receiving gifts from Dixon, listed in a document that has become a much-discussed exhibit in the case, did not ask for the donations, interviews show.

The volume and use of charitable gift cards and other goods flowing into City Hall during Dixon's tenure as City Council president seemed to surprise Judge Dennis M. Sweeney, who is presiding over the case. "Your theory is that gift cards were just flowing in?" Sweeney asked Dixon's lawyers at one point when the jury was not in the courtroom. "They are just swimming in gift cards?"

The prevalence of gift cards became apparent when Dixon was indicted in January. Under the allegations, Dixon requested charitable donations from prominent developers who were constructing projects in the city.

In one instance, prosecutors have discussed how Dixon spent 19 of 20 Best Buy gift cards within days after developer Patrick Turner delivered them to her office in 2005. Dixon's lawyers have said she thought the cards, which arrived in a plain envelope, were a gift from a boyfriend, another developer, and that she had the right to spend them.

Since the indictment, the city's independent ethics panel has intensified efforts to craft clearer guidelines about when city employees can solicit gifts. The new rules are expected to be completed in early January.

"We keep hearing there is great confusion and we need to clarify it" said ethics panel chairwoman Dana P. Moore. "We want to know, before anyone does any soliciting, what is being asked," she said.

The loose accounting for the charity work, which Dixon directed from 2003 to 2006 as city council president, mirrors the management problems uncovered recently in a nearly 30-year-old nonprofit entity known as the Baltimore City Foundation used by city officials to collect donations from benefactors for causes such as summer jobs programs.

A Baltimore Sun investigation this year found that foundation funds paid for expenses related to Dixon's inauguration, including an ice sculpture and ice skating rink.

Members of the foundation board disagree on whose job it was to sign off on expenses. Meanwhile, city officials solicited companies that regularly do business with the city, such as construction giant Whiting-Turner.

The charitable contributions coming in and out of Dixon's council president office appear to be unique to her tenure.

Councilwoman Mary Pat Clarke, council president from 1987 to 1995, said she would ask donors to give directly to whichever cause seemed most needy at the time.

"Mainly we were asked to help groups raise money for Thanksgiving dinner," Clarke said. "Or Christmas gifts for children. I'm sure we all asked other people to help, but to just go and give them the money. ... I cannot remember a situation where we would be collecting the money."

City Council President Stephanie C. Rawlings-Blake said in a statement that her office "does not provide any direct or indirect monetary assistance to individual constituents."

Some defended Dixon's program, saying there's no need for city officials to crack down on gift-giving programs. "It's just nice that people can give people something," said Sen. Lisa Gladden, a Baltimore Democrat. "We don't do enough giving. Let's say I'm a wealthy developer - it's nice that people are willing to give and say, 'Here, use this as you see fit.' "

But Del. Curt Anderson, a Baltimore Democrat who has attended some of the trial, said the proceedings have shown that Baltimore's gift card charity programs need re-evaluation.

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