Wednesday, December 2, 2009

BALTIMORE | Baltimore’s mayor was convicted Tuesday on a single charge of taking gift cards from a program intended for the city’s poor children and using them to buy electronics, including an Xbox video game system.

The misdemeanor conviction eventually could lead to Sheila Dixon’s removal from office. But she said after the verdict that she would return to City Hall, and her attorneys said they would begin an appeal.

Her conviction of fraudulent misappropriation by a fiduciary carries a maximum penalty of five years in prison, but prosecutors have not yet said whether they will seek jail time.

The jury acquitted her on three other counts, including felony theft, and failed to reach a verdict on a second count of misappropriation.

Jurors deliberated more than six days before finding the Democrat guilty of the single count: Sometime between mid-December 2005 and late January 2006, when she was City Council president, she solicited at least $525 in gift cards from developer Patrick Turner and bought electronics at Best Buy and knickknacks at Target.

Prosecutors portrayed Ms. Dixon as a corrupt official who used the $25 gift cards on shopping sprees for items including an Xbox, a PlayStation 2 and a video camera found in a raid of her home.

Defense lawyers had argued that Ms. Dixon thought gift cards delivered anonymously to her office were personal gifts from developer Ronald Lipscomb, a married man who was pursuing her romantically with presents, including an anonymous bouquet. Ms. Dixon, who is divorced, has acknowledged having had an affair with Mr. Lipscomb.

A juror who identified herself only as Shawana told reporters after the verdict that a key piece of evidence was Mr. Turner’s testimony that the gift cards he bought were meant for children.

“There’s no explanation for why you would use gift cards that were for children,” Shawana said, adding later, “there’s no excuse for what she did.”

The verdict marks “a sad day” for the city of Baltimore, state prosecutor Robert Rohrbaugh said outside the courthouse.

“The message is that there’s nobody above the law,” he said. A decision on whether to try Ms. Dixon on the undecided charge could be made by the end of the week.

Ms. Dixon said the city “won’t miss a step.” Some of her supporters applauded as she left the courthouse.

“The jury’s verdict today does not impact my responsibility to continue serving, and I remain focused on keeping Baltimore on course in these trying economic times,” she said in a later statement.

Under state law, Ms. Dixon would be suspended if the conviction is related to her public duties and responsibilities and involves moral turpitude - something her lawyers may contest. She would be removed permanently if she loses all appeals. City Council President Stephanie Rawlings-Blake would be elevated to the mayor’s office, and remaining council members would pick a new president.

The suspension would be effective upon sentencing, according to a 1977 state attorney general’s opinion.

Her attorneys said they will file post-trial motions, the first step toward an appeal. They repeatedly tried to get a mistrial declared as jury deliberations dragged on “beyond the point that we believe to be appropriate,” attorney Arnold M. Weiner said.

The corruption probe began nearly four years ago, when Ms. Dixon was City Council president.

Three of the charges stemmed from when she was mayor, but she was acquitted on two and the jury hung on the third.

Despite the investigation, Baltimore’s first black female mayor remains popular in Maryland’s largest city of about 630,000.

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