Holton at eye of the storm

Councilwoman fighting legal battle, dealing with city budget gap, public safety pensions

May 01, 2010|By Julie Scharper, The Baltimore Sun

City Councilwoman Helen L. Holton stepped out of chambers for a quick break on a recent afternoon, and a passel of lobbyists rushed along behind, seeking a moment of her time.

Union leaders, store owners, Baltimore officials — it seems everyone wants to bend Holton's ear this spring. As chairwoman of the council's Taxation and Finance Committee, Holton plays a central role in the two most pressing issues facing city government: closing a wide budget gap and fixing the public safety pension plan without bankrupting the city, triggering a federal lawsuit or prompting the departure of droves of firefighters and police.

While Holton's days are crammed with meetings and hearings, she has another appointment this week — a court date.

The West Baltimore councilwoman is wrapped up in a lengthy legal battle over charges of bribery and campaign finance violations. On Wednesday, the Court of Special Appeals will hear arguments on the bribery charge against her, which prosecutors say was wrongly dismissed.

Holton, an accountant known for her terse, businesslike demeanor, proclaims her innocence. She says she relies on her faith to juggle the competing demands on her time.

"I manage my life by the grace of God," she said in a recent interview. "I'm a woman of faith."

In a case that was overshadowed by the theft and perjury indictment that led to then-Mayor Sheila Dixon's resignation, Holton was accused of soliciting money for a political poll from a Baltimore businessman whose development project was under review by her committee and ultimately received a tax break.

Her leadership of the taxation committee in the face of a campaign finance charge has raised ethics questions. When Holton was indicted on bribery charges in January 2009, then-Council President Stephanie C. Rawlings-Blake stripped her of the chairmanship. She reinstated Holton when the bribery charge was dismissed, only to move her aside again when prosecutors brought a campaign finance indictment against her.

But citing Holton's expertise on financial issues, Bernard C. "Jack" Young restored Holton to the leadership role after he became City Council president in February, replacing Rawlings-Blake after she took over as mayor.

"I need her knowledge as we deal with one of the worst budgets we've seen in recent years," Young said. "I'm not the judge or jury. I believe everyone is innocent until proven guilty."

When — or if — Holton's cases will come to trial is unclear. On Wednesday, Deputy State Prosecutor Thomas M. McDonough will argue that Sweeney erred in dismissing the bribery charge on the basis of legislative immunity. That is a legal principle under which lawmakers are protected from having their official acts — in Holton's case, her vote to approve the tax break for developer Ronald H. Lipscomb — used against them.

McDonough points to a Supreme Court ruling that allows federal investigators to circumvent legislative immunity when prosecuting state and local officials. By extension, local officials should not be shielded by the rule when under investigation by state prosecutors, he said.

But Joshua R. Treem, Holton's attorney, said McDonough is on shaky ground. "The argument finds no support anywhere," he said, adding that case law establishes that local officials should be protected.

After Sweeney dismissed the bribery charge against Holton, the state prosecutor brought another case against her, charging that she violated campaign finance law by accepting $12,500 from Lipscomb and developer and bakery magnate John Paterakis Sr. to fund a poll conducted as part of a re-election campaign.

Both Lipscomb — an ex-boyfriend of Dixon's and a key figure in the criminal case that led to her resignation — and Paterakis have pleaded guilty to campaign finance violations for bankrolling Holton's poll. Both are expected to testify against her if either case comes to trial.

Sweeney denied a previous motion to dismiss the campaign finance charges on a technicality, and Treem has asked the Court of Special Appeals to reverse that as well. The court is expected to announce a date for that hearing within the coming days.

Holton's legal battle could drag on for months or years. By contrast, the date by which the budget and pension issues must be resolved is finite and fast approaching — June 30, the close of the fiscal year.

As committee chairwoman, Holton must shepherd Rawlings-Blake's nine proposals to raise $50 million in new taxes and fees through a series of hearings. The two measures the mayor has asked the council to expedite — a 4-cent tax on bottled beverages and a $350 annual fee for every hospital and university bed — have generated robust opposition.

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