“I say to you, O Republic…Beware of the man [or woman] who rises to power from one suspender.”
— Edgar Lee Masters
Baltimore, MD – On Dec. 1, 2009, after often heated deliberations for seven days, and with two weekend breaks, a jury of nine women and three men in the criminal trial of Mayor Sheila Dixon, returned a “guilty” verdict on one of the five theft-related counts in the indictment against her. By law, as a result of the conviction, she will forfeit her office; the current President of the City Council, Stephanie Rawlings-Blake, will replace her. Ironically, the Mayor, age 55, chose to wear a black dress to court on Nov. 19th, the day the jury heard final arguments in her case, as if she were going to a friend’s funeral rather than attending her own trial. Maybe, in a “political” sense, the trial was her funeral!
The charges against Mayor Dixon dealt originally with stealing 60 gift cards, which were suppose to go the city’s “poor and needy,” according to the State Prosecutor, Robert Rohrbaugh. The evidence clearly showed that the Mayor bought merchandise, with the gift cards, like a camcorder and related items, for herself. The final arguments in the case took place, on Nov. 17th, in Court Room 4, on the second floor, in the Court House-East building, only blocks from the glitzy Inner Harbor. The total value of all the gift cards in dispute was about $1,500. After two of the seven counts were tossed out by the Trial Judge, the Hon. Dennis M. Sweeney, only about $630 worth of gift cards remained in dispute.
The amount of theft involved in this case paled in significance to the mega-trillions of dollars ripped off of taxpayers and investors by the grasping Wall Street Mob. However, the prosecutors repeatedly underscored this theme for the jury: the Mayor was stealing from the “children of Baltimore!”
First up in the closing argument stage of the case was Rohrbaugh’s assistant, Ms. Shelly Glenn. She was peerless in setting out all the damning evidence, in great detail, against the Mayor. She deftly used a Power Point presentation to advance her argument. This included showing to the twelve jurors all of the relevant receipts from Best Buy, Target and Toys “R” Us, for materials purchased by and traced to the Mayor, and just as important, documenting telephone calls between developer Patrick Turner and Mayor Dixon. Turner had donated at least 40 gift cards to the city for the “needy,” but only 21 of them, worth $25 each, were at issue by the time the jury got the case. Five other cards from the “Holly Trolley Tour” program were relevant, too. I think Ms. Glenn nailed the case down tightly with her introduction, and left the defense with little room, if any, to maneuver.
(As an aside, this court house back on Oct. 10, 1973, was the same building, where then V.P. of the United States, Spiro T. Agnew, copped a “no contest” plea to income tax evasion charges. As a part of the plea deal, he resigned his office. Although, I loathed V.P. Agnew’s Right Wing politics, I can’t forget that I had him as an adjunct professor at the U. of Baltimore Law School, in the early 60s. Agnew was always prepared for class and he did a competent job as an instructor.)
Arnold Weiner was Mayor Dixon’s lead counsel and one of seven on her team. (I think having seven lawyers representing one defendant in a criminal case is a state of Maryland record.) Weiner is one of the best in Baltimore at his craft. But, prosecutor Rohrbaugh had boxed him into a corner and cleverly limited his ability to do any real counter-punching in the case. Weiner assumed that the main witness against the Mayor was going to be another developer, Ronald H. Lipscomb, who had previously cut a deal with the prosecutors to save his own hide in an unrelated corruption matter. Lipscomb was also the Mayor’s ex-boyfriend. At the last second, however, Rohrbaugh decided not to call Lipscomb on behalf of the state. Talk about a bold move!
Weiner was all keyed up to show through “boyfriend” Lipscomb that the Mayor getting gift cards was a normal practice at City Hall. And, that she had mistakenly believed that the cards that developer Patrick Turner delivered to her City Hall office had come from Lipscomb and were a “personal gift” to her. No Lipscomb on the stand meant there was no real chance for Weiner to build the issue of “reasonable doubt” for the jury to consider. Rohrbaugh’s trial court strategy, which was criticized by one law professor, turned out to be both gutsy and brilliant. I think the witness change may have also pushed Weiner off his game.
As expected, Weiner was eloquent in his closing argument. Some in the court room, no doubt the Mayor’s partisans, even applauded his performance. Judge Sweeney quickly cautioned them on their outburst. Weiner sarcastically disparaged the nearly four year investigation by the State prosecutor’s office and its unstinting efforts to bring Mayor Dixon to the Bar of Justice. He also mocked, I think, unfairly, Ms. Glenn’s submission to the jury, which caused some laughter from the court room’s peanut gallery. Weiner also argued the state’s case was “worthless,” and that he was personally “proud of Sheila Dixon,” the first African-American female Mayor in the city’s history.
In the end, however, Weiner had really little of substance to work with on the Mayor’s behalf. He chose not to let her testify and not to call Lipscomb as a defense witness. So, it was the state’s evidence, which was both compelling and mostly unchallenged by any defense witnesses, that revealed the criminal “intent” necessary for the jury to reach the “guilty” verdicts.
Mayor Dixon can receive a jail sentence and/or a fine as a result of the guilty findings. She can also lose her $83,000 a year city pension. Now, too, there is no chance the taxpayers will be picking up the substantial cost of her legal defense team, which will probably run in the hundreds of thousands of dollars. Meanwhile, a fierce legal fight is expected to get Mayor Dixon physically out of City Hall and to allow Ms. Rawlings-Blake, also an African-American, to succeed to the office of Mayor.
Getting back to the trial lawyers. Their styles were very different. Weiner was flamboyant and cerebral. Rohrbaugh came across as one of your favorite, yarn-telling uncles. He has also demonstrated in the pursuit of justice in this matter, some of the persistence of the legendary Special Prosecutor Archibald Cox in pursuit of the “Watergate” wrongdoers, a process that eventually ended in Richard Nixon’s resignation as President in 1974.
Weiner tended, at times, to lecture the jury. Rohrbaugh, instead, “talked” directly to them in a conversational tone, as if they were his neighbors. In a very dramatic move, just as he was finishing his closing remarks, Rohrbaugh placed 24 of the gift cards, that were intended for the “poor and needy” of the city, one by one on the railing in front of the jury. It was this telling touch by a very modest man, who sees himself as simply a “public servant,” that, I believe, finally, sealed Mayor Dixon’s fate.
In conclusion, critics have suspected, but have been unable to prove, that corruption at City Hall has been rampant for years. The Feds looked into various charge not too long ago, but, their inquiry went nowhere. Mayor Dixon, soon to be, “Citizen” Dixon, faces another criminal case, which is coming up in March, 2010. It deals with alleged perjury. Again, the “ex-boyfriend,” Lipscomb, with his cute little mustache, is slated to be the star witness, with Mr. Rohrbaugh and Ms. Glenn representing the people of Maryland. Stay tuned for more real life courtroom drama.