Baltimore mayor Sheila Dixon convicted of one count of fraud

By Julie Bykowicz and Annie Linskey
Baltimore Sun
Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Baltimore Mayor Sheila Dixon was found guilty Tuesday of embezzling about $500 in retail gift cards meant for charity, a misdemeanor conviction that could end her tenure as the city's first female mayor.

Maryland's Constitution calls for removing elected officials from office when they are sentenced for a crime related to their public duties, and questions have risen about how long Dixon can continue to lead the city.

Jurors said in post-trial interviews that their verdict hinged more on the mayor's abuse of public trust than the dollar amount of the crime.

"It's not that it's just gift cards," said a juror who identified herself as Shawana. She said she hoped that people would see a lesson in the conviction: "You can't just do what you want to do . . . no matter how famous you are."

Juror Elaine Pollack said that "the denomination doesn't matter. It's a trust issue."

The predominantly African American panel of nine women and three men deliberated for seven days before announcing about noon that they had reached a unanimous decision on some of the five counts in the trial, which began Nov. 9.

Dixon, a Democrat, showed no emotion as the verdict was read. Outside the courthouse, she said that "the city will move forward."

The mayor was acquitted on three charges, and the jury deadlocked on a fifth. But even some of Dixon's strongest supporters said the lone guilty finding raised serious doubts about her future. "I don't think she can continue to be mayor," said City Council member Rochelle "Rikki" Spector. "I'm sorry, because she has been a good mayor."

A hearing date for sentencing had not been set. Dixon faces penalties ranging from unsupervised probation to five years in prison. If removed from office, she could lose her $83,000 pension.

Separately, Dixon is scheduled for a perjury trial in March on suspicion of failing to disclose gifts from her former boyfriend, a developer with lucrative city tax incentives.

City Council President Stephanie C. Rawlings-Blake, who would become mayor if Dixon is forced from office or steps down, said, "I think we have to let the legal process play out. There are rules."

Gov. Martin O'Malley (D), who preceded Dixon as mayor, called it "a sad day" for Baltimore.

Dixon said that the verdict "does not impact my responsibility to continue serving."

State Prosecutor Robert A. Rohrbaugh, who has investigated Dixon for almost four years, called the jury "courageous."

Rohrbaugh said he hopes that other elected leaders will take notice. "If you commit a crime, you will be charged. It is not worth the risk, and politicians should understand that," he said.

Dixon, 55, was found guilty of a misdemeanor for using Best Buy and Target gift cards on herself and her aides.

Developer Patrick Turner said he bought the cards in 2005 for "the children of Baltimore." Dixon was City Council president at the time.

The jury acquitted Dixon of three other charges, including felony theft in the Turner case, and failed to reach a verdict on a charge that she misused about $120 worth of Toys R Us gift cards from a separate, city-funded charity program. Presiding Judge Dennis M. Sweeney declared a mistrial on that count and gave prosecutors until Friday to decide whether to re-try it.

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