Prosecutorial piling on

Our view: Hyping the sale of Dixon's furs on eBay goes further than justice demands

March 12, 2010

It's been tough to muster much sympathy for former Mayor Sheila Dixon recently, what with the revelations about her tawdry affair with a prominent developer, the gifts he gave her while she was deciding on tax breaks for his company, the embezzlement of gift cards meant for the poor, her refusal to apologize or admit wrongdoing, the pension, the city police car sitting outside her house in a blizzard, and so on. But State Prosecutor Robert Rohrbaugh may have found a way.

The man who ended Ms. Dixon's political career has taken some of the evidence from the cases he built against her and posted it on eBay, with the proceeds going to a charity Ms. Dixon supported. And he's milking it for all it's worth. The descriptions of the items prominently mention their roles in the Dixon trial, and the red evidence tags are clearly visible in the pictures posted on the site. If there's any doubt about whether buyers are attracted to the items or to the hype, note that as of Thursday morning, the bidding for the Xbox 360 Ms. Dixon bought at Best Buy was up to $860, several times what a new one would cost.

The point of the exercise, Mr. Rohrbaugh said, was to make other politicians think twice about seeking gifts. "I hope it sends the message, 'You're going to be very embarrassed,'" he said. Sheila Dixon never seemed to be one given to embarrassment, but it seems likely that having her personal business aired in court and the press, being convicted by a jury of her peers and being forced to resign in disgrace would probably have been enough to do the trick.

It's understandable that the state would have retained the Xbox and a camcorder that Ms. Dixon bought with the gift cards and that it would now seek to dispose of them. But the rationale for selling the fur coats is less clear. The legal reason for why the state is able to sell them is simple enough - Ms. Dixon agreed to surrender them as part of her plea deal. But what is the ethical reason? Although the manner in which Ms. Dixon got the coats - she bought them with a gift certificate from her one-time boyfriend, developer Ronald Lipscomb - was certainly unsavory, Mr. Rohrbaugh never contended that it was illegal. He charged her with perjury for failing to report the gifts on her ethics forms, not with obtaining them through theft, embezzlement or any other crime. Posting them on eBay as "Fur coat surrendered by Sheila Dixon" smacks of piling on.

As for whether the sale serves as a warning, another detail of Ms. Dixon's plea deal is likely to have more weight in the minds of the potentially corrupt: She kept her pension, all $83,000 a year of it, for the rest of her life. Mr. Rohrbaugh has said that he didn't think that legally he could have done much to strip her of that pension, and that if he had tried it would have dragged things out for months or years. He's probably right about that. But the same logic that called for him to let the pension go for the sake of quickly restoring ethical leadership to the city also applies to his souvenir auction. Mr. Rohrbaugh has made his point that no one is above the law. Now it's time to move on.

Readers respond
You ask what is the ethical reason for surrendering her accoutrements? I ask what is the ethical reason for indenturing present and future Baltimoreans into paying a thief twice the median income for the next 20-30 years? The spectacle of it is driving prices higher and bringing in more money for this charity. Yes it comes at the expense of whatever is left of her dignity, but who do you value more, these kids that will be helped or the thief who stole from them?

Josh Dowlut

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