Breaking the silence

Our view: Judge Dennis Sweeney said what other public officials should have all along — that former Mayor Dixon's conduct was a disgrace to her office and the city

February 05, 2010

After a week in which now-former Mayor Sheila Dixon was celebrated by her colleagues as if she were going off on a well-deserved retirement rather than resigning in disgrace, it took Judge Dennis Sweeney to finally say what no other public official in this state has: Sheila Dixon was guilty, the evidence against her was overwhelming, and she brought shame onto Baltimore that was only compounded by the unwillingness of other city officials to condemn her in any way.

At Ms. Dixon's sentencing, Judge Sweeney read a lengthy prepared statement in which he took aim at the claims made by Ms. Dixon and her attorneys that the prosecution and guilty verdict against her were politically motivated, fueled by media hype or the product of jury incompetence or misconduct. The judge concluded that "from what I saw at trial and in the motions before the court, the cases against Ms. Dixon were strong, if not indeed overwhelming." The jury, he said, was kind to convict her of only one count, and had she gone to trial for perjury, a conviction "would have been a virtual certainty."

The mayor's downfall was not, as she has claimed, the result of prosecutors pressuring her former boyfriend to lie. It was the product of her own illegal acts, uncovered in a painstaking investigation, supported by credible witnesses and documents. Her defense provided no evidence to counter those facts.

It did, however, engage in an extremely distasteful effort to discredit the jury. Judge Sweeney, to his credit, defended the 12 men and women who sacrificed weeks of their lives for the trial and deliberations. Indeed, their conduct was not perfect. Jurors communicated outside of court in ways they should not have done, and some did not give complete answers during jury selection. But the notion presented by Ms. Dixon's lawyers that they somehow conspired against her is absurd. Baltimore could not have asked for more dedicated service from its citizens, and the fact that the mayor of the city, through her attorneys, smeared their honest work did a disservice to the very notion of community.

The point Judge Sweeney made that is most important going forward is his caution that the current attention being paid to restoring ethics in City Hall not be a passing fad. The new mayor, Stephanie C. Rawlings-Blake, has offered an important proposal for reforming the ethics board, and her former colleagues on the City Council are drafting additional ethics legislation.

But the judge has reason to be concerned based on the utter unwillingness of any officials to publicly condemn Ms. Dixon's acts. In particular, the judge singled out an affidavit City Solicitor George Nilson provided for Ms. Dixon's attorneys that had the effect of backing up Mr. Weiner's arguments that developer Ronald H. Lipscomb, who received millions in tax breaks from Baltimore, did not count under the ethics code's definition of someone doing business with the city-thus, Mr. Weiner contended, the mayor was free to take whatever gifts from him that she chose. "The official position of the city was not met, to my knowledge, by any dissent or outrage by other elected city officials at the time it became public," Judge Sweeney said.

Mr. Nilson has many admirers among the city's movers and shakers who would like to see him retained in the Rawlings-Blake administration. He is intelligent and well qualified and has performed decades of honorable service to the city and state. By all accounts, the city law department functions better than it has in years. However, if he wants to keep his job, he must answer for that affidavit.

Hours after Judge Sweeney spoke, Ms. Rawlings-Blake took the oath of office in a small, subdued ceremony. That was the appropriate choice. The lifting of the cloud of corruption over City Hall is an occasion to be celebrated, but not today. Judge Sweeney's comments underscored the heavy burden Ms. Rawlings-Blake faces to restore citizens' trust in their government. The best way she could do that was by quietly going to work.

Readers respond
If the evidence against Sheila Dixon was so overwhelming, then why was she allowed to cop to a relatively painless plea deal in which she will get to keep her ample pension?

Strong words uttered against her by the prosecutor and now the judge are cold comfort for those who feel that she would have been found guilty if the prosecutor had followed through with further charges.

No wonder she's arrogant and unrepentant; she has no reason to act otherwise, given the kid-glove treatment she's received.

Justice for whom?

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