Mayor of Baltimore shifts tack at hearing

Baltimore's Sheila Dixon (Jed Kirschbaum - AP)
  Enlarge Photo    
By Annie Linskey and Julie Bykowicz
Baltimore Sun
Friday, November 13, 2009

Baltimore Mayor Sheila Dixon's lead attorney told jurors in her criminal theft case Thursday that Dixon spent gift cards donated by city developers for one simple reason: She thought they were meant as gifts for her.

That line of defense will probably turn the mayor's trial into a credibility contest between Dixon and her former boyfriend, developer Ronald H. Lipscomb, who is expected to testify that the cards were intended for use by poor families at Christmastime, not by Dixon. The mayor has pleaded not guilty to theft, embezzlement and misconduct charges in connection with the use of about 60 gift cards worth about $1,500, most of them from Lipscomb.

The defense argument, a highlight of the first day of testimony in the trial, appeared designed to blunt the prosecution's effort to connect the mayor to purchases made with the cards.

In his opening statement to the jury, prosecutor Robert A. Rohrbaugh described the trail of evidence painstakingly assembled by state investigators. To punctuate his argument, he slapped stacks of plastic gift cards on the edge of the jury box and unfurled paper store receipts of Dixon's purchases.

"When you are a public official, it is a breach of the public trust when you steal," Rohrbaugh said. "When you are a public servant and you steal from the needy, it is unspeakable."

Minutes later, Dixon's side seemed to sweep beyond the prosecution's statement with a new argument that Dixon thought she had a right to the use the cards for her benefit. The defense theory marked a shift from a previous line of argument from her attorneys, as laid out in pretrial motions, that Dixon had used the cards by mistake.

"This case is not about if Sheila Dixon used gift cards," said defense attorney Arnold M. Weiner. "What this is about is how they were given to her and her reasonable belief that she had a right to use them."

Lipscomb said in grand jury testimony that a staff member from Dixon's office called him requesting $25 and $50 gift cards from Best Buy, Old Navy and Giant. The $25 cards, he told the grand jury, were to go to single mothers, and the $50 cards were for larger families.

If convicted of any of the charges, Dixon, 55, would have to step down as mayor and forfeit her $83,000 annual pension. She could also be fined or face jail.

She also is charged with two perjury counts. Dixon is accused of not reporting gifts from Lipscomb, who benefited from city contracts and tax credits. That trial is scheduled for March.

© 2009 The Washington Post Company