Fur coats and tax breaks – dusting off the details of the Sheila Dixon story
INSIDE CITY HALL: A look back at what media and prosecutors uncovered about the former mayor in the run-up to her 2009 embezzlement conviction
Above: At a meeting in Sandtown last month, a fan posed with Sheila Dixon.
With her announcement that she is indeed running for her old job as mayor – the job she resigned from in 2010 after pleading guilty to a misdemeanor charge of embezzlement – Sheila Dixon has been the talk of the town.
She stole gift cards intended for poor children. She stole the spotlight from Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake at Freddie Gray’s funeral. Now, on to the 2016 mayoral horserace!
But what about those fur coats? What about Developers A, B and C, as they were referred to by the prosecution?
In the months leading up to the jury’s guilty verdict and Dixon’s resignation, many intriguing details about her conduct in office came out in news reports, affidavits and other documents. Those details are worth revisiting amid the citywide conversation taking place about Dixon’s suggestion that she would do a better job of running Baltimore than incumbent Stephanie Rawlings-Blake.
The former mayor remains vague on the subject of her past problems.
In the closest thing she has uttered to an apology (a recent WJZ-TV interview), Dixon referred to her crime, in passive-voice mode, as “what happened.”
“I think people in Baltimore want to hear my sincerity – that I am sorry for what happened. I’m apologizing about it. I also know that people want to hear that I have not taken anything for granted in that process of what happened. And I also know that I want to thank those people in Baltimore who have been praying for me, who have been supportive of me.”
So what exactly did happen?
As the now 61-year-old Dixon seeks a return to City Hall, here’s some of what came to light in the months before she left.
Gift Cards in Unmarked Envelope
In the original indictment, Dixon was charged with using at least $2,000 in donated Target and Best Buy gift cards to video game systems and other items for personal use.
She was also charged with failing to disclose lavish trips, gifts and other items given to her by her developer boyfriend Ronald H. Lipscomb. (Lipscomb’s company, Doracon, was a minority subcontractor that received numerous tax breaks from the city.)
During the November 2009 trial, the Lipscomb-related charges were dropped when prosecutors decided not to call him to the stand. (In their opening statement, Dixon’s defense team had signaled they planned to paint a picture of Lipscomb as “deceptive and untrustworthy,” a strategy dubbed by some “the bad boyfriend defense.”)
But jurors did find Dixon guilty on a single “misappropriation by a fiduciary” charge – saying that sometime between December 2005 and late January 2006 while city council president, she took gift cards intended for charity and used them instead to buy electronics and other personal items at Best Buy and Target.
The cards had come from developer Patrick Turner who testified that he had sent $1,000 in gift cards in an unmarked envelope to City Hall after Dixon had called and asked him to do so.
Turner said he had believed they were being given “to the children of Baltimore.” Phone records showed that Dixon called the developer several times before and after he purchased the cards.
Turner testified he had no idea that some of the cards were used to purchase personal items – including a video camera and case that were found in her home during a June 2008 raid by state prosecutors.
(Turner, like Lipscomb, had high-stakes matters pending before city government. In 2008, Mayor Dixon and the city council approved a record-setting $160 million Tax Increment Financing package for Turner’s massive Westport development project.)
Tax Break, then Shopping Trip
The state prosecutor’s office detailed lavish trips to Chicago, Colorado, Boston and the Bahamas that Dixon took with Lipscomb, but failed to report. (City ethics laws require, at penalty of perjury, the reporting of gifts from anyone benefiting from city business.)
The indictment stated that Lipscomb may have spent nearly $13,000 on items, travel and personal services for Dixon at Saks Fifth Avenue, Giorgio, Coach and St. John Boutique, all in Chicago. That trip seemed to be a major shopping spree, with Dixon purchasing $570 Jimmy Choo sandals and Lipscomb charging nearly $500 at Saks for toners, facial cleansers and moisturizers.
If the Chicago trip was striking because of the lavish spending, another excursion raised eyebrows because of its timing.
According to prosecutors, Dixon and the developer left for New York City by train on Feb. 18, 2004 – the same day she voted on the Board of Estimates to approve a $13.6 million tax break (PILOT) for Lipscomb’s apartment project in Harbor East, Spinnaker Bay.
The couple stayed two nights at the five-star Trump International Hotel for a total $2,089.84, paid on Lipscomb’s American Express card, prosecutors said.
Gift Certificate to Fur Store
An earlier gesture of Lipscomb largesse came in the form of a $2,000 Mano Swartz gift certificate given to Dixon in 2003. The mayor used the certificate to buy a burnt umber mink coat and a Persian Lamb jacket from the Lutherville furrier, according to prosecution documents.
(The Mano Swartz’s owner testified that the purchaser of the certificate asked that no name be put on the certificate.)
Questioned about the gifts and trips, Dixon publicly acknowledged that she’d had a relationship with Lipscomb and that the two had exchanged gifts. But she said they did not influence her decision-making as mayor.
Plea Deal and Beyond
After the jury ‘s December 2009 verdict, Dixon had been scheduled to stand trial in March 2010 for a separate charge of perjury for failing to disclose the gifts from Lipscomb.
Instead she entered an Alford plea – a plea that means that although the person does not admit guilt, they recognize that prosecutors have enough evidence to convict them.
That plea came as part of a comprehensive agreement Dixon’s attorney reached with prosecutors whereby they agreed to strike the earlier guilty verdict on the gift card theft and instead give Dixon “probation before judgment,” a legal status that means the mayor would not have a criminal conviction if she completes her probation.
Dixon, n return, agreed to leave office, perform 500 hours of community service and donate $45,000 towards charity. She was allowed to keep her $83,000 pension.
After failing to keep current with her charity payments and being charged with violating her probation, Dixon finally completed the payments.
Now, she is challenging one-time ally Rawlings-Blake and receiving enthusiastic encouragement from many quarters.
Postscript on the Fur Coats
In a move State Prosecutor Robert A. Rohrbaugh acknowledged was unprecedented, he took the coats, XBox and other items confiscated from Dixon’s home as evidence – and sold them on eBay to raise money for charity.
Here’s how one of them was described online:
This beige fur coat was surrendered to the Maryland State Prosecutor’s Office as evidence in the trial of former Baltimore Mayor Sheila Dixon. The State Prosecutors Office is selling this item pursuant to the plea agreement. This item was taken in June 2008. This coat is described as a ‘Nepal/Persian Lamb dyed Sandstone with fabric.’ The item is marked as a medium, I have been told that its size is on the small side of medium. The coat is in good condition.
That coat ultimately went for $1,700, sold to winning bidder Susan Gillette, senior university counsel at the University of Maryland Baltimore.
Gillette told reporters at the time she planned to use the coat as a prop during ethics training.