BALTIMORE — Baltimore’s mayor was convicted Tuesday on a single charge she took gift cards intended for the city’s poor. Although Sheila Dixon was acquitted of a felony theft charge, her conviction could force her from office.
Jurors deliberated more than six days after hearing the Democrat accused of using or keeping $630 worth of gift cards. She allegedly solicited most of the cards from a wealthy developer and then bought electronics at Best Buy, clothes at Old Navy and knickknacks at Target.
The jury convicted her on one count of fraudulent misappropriation by a fiduciary and acquitted her on two counts of felony theft and one count of misconduct in office. Jurors failed to reach verdict on another count of fraudulent misappropriation by a fiduciary.
Prosecutors painted a picture of a corrupt official going on personal shopping sprees and described a collection of electronics found during a raid of her home: an Xbox, a PlayStation 2 and a video camera. A DVD of the action crime film, “Four Brothers,” was still in its original wrapping, State Prosecutor Robert Rohrbaugh said during opening statements, receipts dangling from his hand.
Dixon’s lawyers blamed the case on developer Ronald Lipscomb, a married man whom they said lavished her with gifts, including gift cards sent anonymously, as he pursued her romantically. Dixon thought gift cards delivered anonymously by another developer also came from Lipscomb, the defense argued.
Dixon’s defense team called just four witnesses, including the mayor’s pastor and a florist who testified about an anonymous, $285 bouquet sent by Lipscomb. Her attorneys argued she thought some of the gift cards were intended as personal gifts, while others, found in her home, were forgotten leftovers from a charity event.
Her conviction could force her suspension from office upon sentencing, followed by removal if she loses all appeals. City Council President Stephanie Rawlings-Blake is in line to be elevated to the mayor’s office, and remaining council members would pick a new president.
Dixon, 55, has been under the cloud of the City Hall corruption probe for nearly four years, since she was City Council president. She was indicted in January.
Still, she remains popular in Maryland’s largest city of about 630,000 residents.
Dixon became Baltimore’s first African-American woman mayor when she succeeded Martin O’Malley in January 2007 after he was elected governor. She easily won a four-year term in November 2007.
She was praised during her first year in office for tackling crises swiftly, and her police commissioner, Frederick H. Bealefeld III, oversaw a drop in homicides to a 20-year-low. Dixon also has pushed for a “cleaner, greener Baltimore” by introducing a new recycling program. Under her watch, the city sued lending giant Wells Fargo for allegedly singling out black residents for high-interest subprime mortgages, leading to foreclosures and vacant properties.
The gift card case has revived talk of Dixon’s perceived sense of entitlement. Her critics point to a pattern of behavior that suggests she thinks rules don’t apply to her. When she became City Council president in 1999, the state ethics commission advised her to step down from her part-time state government job, saying it raised potential conflicts of interest. Dixon kept the second job for more than two years.
She also steered city business to a company that employed her sister. And the city paid Dixon’s campaign chairman, without a contract, to do computer work at City Hall.
Dixon, a divorced mother, is known for chic attire and a quick temper. During a 1991 debate at City Hall on redistricting, she caused a stir when she took off one of her shoes, held it up and told white City Council members: “Now the shoe is on the other foot.”
Shoes came back to haunt her during the City Hall probe. Prosecutors said during the investigation that she bought a $570 pair of Jimmy Choo sandals while in Chicago with Lipscomb in 2004.
During the trial, her relatives, some City Council members and members of the city’s business community attended to show their support.
The Maryland Minority Contractors Association Inc. printed bumper stickers reading, “Save our Sisters,” in support of Dixon and City Councilwoman Helen Holton, who is criminally charged with taking contributions that exceed campaign finance limits – including contributions from Lipscomb.
The mayor’s legal troubles aren’t over with this case. She faces a separate trial on perjury charges stemming from accusations that she didn’t report gifts from Lipscomb. Lipscomb told a grand jury that he once gave Dixon $4,000 after the Chicago shopping spree. Dixon apparently used the money to pay her American Express bill.
Lipscomb made an illegal campaign contribution to Holton. The conviction will be expunged if he stays out of further legal trouble.