No Petty Corruption

Our View: The Verdict Against Mayor Dixon Costs Baltimore A Strong Leader But Affirms That No One Is Above The Law

December 02, 2009

Mayor Sheila Dixon's conviction for embezzling gift cards donated by a developer who thought they were going to help the poor marks a terrible loss for the city of Baltimore. Although many were skeptical when she was elevated to mayor to replace Gov. Martin O'Malley in 2007, she has proved a capable administrator and a strong leader. Under her tenure, crime has gone down, schools have gotten better and streets have become cleaner. What is particularly tragic is that her downfall would be precipitated by such a petty crime - filching about $600 in gift cards to Target and Best Buy that went to purchase, among other things, an Xbox.

The mayor's supporters are bound to play down the seriousness of the jury's decision, as they have played down all the charges against her in this trial and in the one on perjury charges scheduled for March. Is it just, they will ask, for a successful, popular mayor to likely be forced from office over the misuse of a few hundred dollars' worth of gift cards?

The answer is: Yes, it is. It is sad, pathetic even, but it is just. There is no corruption so small that it is unimportant.

For all her successes, Ms. Dixon has been dogged by ethics questions for years. She put her sister on the payroll in the City Council president's office but was forced to fire her when the Baltimore ethics board said it violated city regulations. Later, she attempted to steer city business to the firm that employed her sister, and she hired her campaign chairman to work on the City Council's computer system. He earned hundreds of thousands of dollars, most of it without a contract and in small increments to avoid scrutiny.

Ms. Dixon has largely been able to avoid accounting for those actions, but not anymore. Beyond the count on which the jurors found cause for a legal determination of guilt, the trial exposed a pattern of lax ethics at City Hall, one that cannot be allowed to continue.

Mayor Dixon was in the habit of soliciting charity from developers who stood to gain or lose millions based on her decisions. She ran a gift card-centered charity program with no accounting standards whatsoever that was rife with potential for corruption. She initially admitted to a brief affair with developer Ronald Lipscomb, only to have her lawyer say in court later that the relationship lasted for years. And we have not yet begun to have an accounting of her failure to report on her city ethics forms thousands of dollars in gifts from Mr. Lipscomb, gifts she and her attorneys have never denied that she took at a time when the developer was seeking millions in tax breaks.

No doubt other politicians have done worse, but that doesn't excuse Ms. Dixon and doesn't change the fact that this conviction strikes at the heart of what made her effective.

Ms. Dixon grew up in a middle-class family that had its share of struggles. Her brother became addicted to drugs and died of AIDS. She was married twice and divorced twice, leaving her to raise her two children largely on her own, along with her brother's son, basketball star Juan Dixon. Nothing was handed to her, and she succeeded on her own strength and determination. That gave her a tremendous moral authority as mayor. She could step out on any street corner in the city and admonish a wayward youth to straighten up with a genuineness that her predecessors couldn't match. She was of this city, and her compelling personal story, coupled with a strong will and fierce devotion to Baltimore, made her a natural leader.

But the jury's verdict was a judgment on her inability to separate her personal wants from her public duties. When an envelope full of gift cards appeared in her office, she took them, no questions asked, and spent them on herself. With this conviction, her moral authority is forever lost.

However large or small the public may judge Ms. Dixon's transgressions to be, the 12 men and women of the jury considered them worthy of some 40 hours of debate, stretching over three weeks. Their unanimous decision affirms that Baltimore deserves more. It deserves a mayor who will not only get results but will do so in a manner that is beyond reproach. With Ms. Dixon's conviction, we lose a leader who had shown promise, but we preserve a principle that is much more important.

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