by David Dishneau
BALTIMORE (AP)—Baltimore’s mayor was convicted on a single charge she took gift cards intended for the city’s poor. Although Sheila Dixon was acquitted of felony theft charges, her misdemeanor conviction could force her from office.
Jurors deliberated more than six days after hearing accusations the Democrat improperly used or kept $630 worth of gift cards. She was accused of soliciting most of the cards from a wealthy developer and buying 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 a verdict on another count of fraudulent misappropriation by a fiduciary.
The conviction carries a maximum penalty of five years in prison, but prosecutors have not decided whether they will seek jail time. They also haven’t decided whether to seek a retrial on the undecided charge.
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, including an Xbox, a PlayStation 2 and a video camera.
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.
“It’s a sad day,” State Prosecutor Robert Rohrbaugh said outside the courthouse after the verdict. “Any time a sitting mayor is convicted, it’s a sad day for the city of Baltimore.”
“The message is that there’s nobody above the law,” he said.
Dixon said afterward the “city will continue to run and citizens can feel confident that the city won’t miss a step.” Some of her supporters applauded as she left the courthouse.
One of her attorneys, Arnold M. Weiner, said he was disappointed with the verdict and they planned to file post-trial motions. They tried to have a mistrial declared days ago as jury deliberations stretched on.
The deliberations continued “beyond the point that we believe to be appropriate,” he said.
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.
Under state law, Dixon would be suspended at sentencing if the conviction is related to her official duties. She would be removed permanently if she loses all her 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, including a police effort that saw homicides drop to a 20-year low, a new recycling program and a lawsuit against lending giant Wells Fargo claiming it singled out Black residents for high-interest subprime mortgages.
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.”
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, which Dixon apparently used 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.
(Associated Press Writer Alex Dominguez contributed to this report.)