Day after day, Sheila Dixon's supporters gathered in the dimly lit gallery of a downtown courtroom like relatives huddled in the ringside shadows of a fight they could barely stand to watch. To them, Dixon was a friend, a sister, their mayor.
To the court, she was a criminal defendant.
Hour after hour, they watched as the State Prosecutor attacked the mayor from all angles: receipts, photographs, computer traces, experts, reluctant witnesses, damning testimony.
In the middle of it all sat Dixon. Sharply dressed, chin up, unfazed. Even as prosecutors portrayed her as a petty thief, Dixon took her shots with the fortitude you might expect from a 56-year-old divorced mother of two with a black belt in karate. State Prosecutor Robert A. Rohrbaugh told the jury that, as council president, Dixon solicited gift cards from developers to be donated to the needy, but then spent them on herself, her family, her friends.
After seven days of deliberation, the 12 jurors found Dixon not guilty on three counts but convicted her of a misdemeanor embezzlement charge that could end her 23-year political career over about $500 in gift cards.
Following the decision, reporters gathered at the courthouse steps, forming a tight circle around the perch of microphones that awaited Baltimore's first convicted mayor. Cameras rolled, digital voice recorders beeped, pens scribbled, questions flew.
Dixon offered no tears, no apology. She looked at her watch, and said, "I'm going to City Hall."
Her reluctance to step down or apologize after the conviction reinforced a prevailing notion that Dixon plays by her own set of rules. In her impressive rise to becoming the city's first female mayor, Sheila Dixon left a trail of dubious decisions, often applying her own interpretation to the ethical standards of her offices. Along the way, her brash style and fierce partisanship earned an army of enemies. As a reporter who covered Sheila Dixon, I watched as Dixon's own decisions and determined enemies precipitated her political implosion.
As a City Hall reporter for The Sun, I covered Sheila Dixon for five years, and developed a working relationship with her. She wasn't afraid to call and complain about my coverage or bad-mouth me in public. She was a complex subject to write about.
The West Baltimore native's biography—former kindergarten teacher rises from working-class roots to become city government's first female chief executive—is compelling.
She was well known for her brooding personality, as during the infamous "shoe incident," when, as a City Council member, she waved her pump at white colleagues and angrily declared "The shoe is on the other foot!"
But an incident like that could be hard to reconcile with the portrait of her as a mother of two who had lost a brother to AIDS. She didn't just feel your pain, the conventional wisdom suggested, she lived it.
Covering her was an emotional whirlpool. She could be charming, like when she told me I was handsome, or blunt, like when she told me I had put on weight. She could be inspiring, as when she pushed to improve public transportation and trash collection or vowed to tackle illegal guns. But if Mayor Sheila Dixon had to be captured in a word, it's "tough".
"She's always been a very tenacious, hard-nosed person—my way or the highway," says Keiffer J. Mitchell Jr., the former councilman who challenged Dixon for mayor in 2007. "That's what endeared her to many people."
The evidence of the mayor's success is everywhere: Crime is down. Trash collection is up. Potholes are getting filled. But despite this, her questionable decisions have haunted her.
"She's been ethically challenged for years," says Julian Lapides, a state ethics commission member and former appointee to Baltimore's ethics board. "Her ethical lapses seem to have caught up to her with this conviction."
For years, Dixon fended off criticism of her lapses with her trademark defiance.
In 2000, after she was elected Council president, the state ethics commission recommended she leave a conflicting job at Maryland's economic development agency. She refused for two years, saying the ruling wasn't based on fact.
In 2002 a judge ruled she violated the Open Meetings Act by hosting a closed council session. Dixon said the judge erred. "Whenever a judge makes a ruling … it's correct? No," she was quoted as saying in The Sun.
In 2003, I reported that Dixon's sister held a paid job with her office and that Dixon had received free parking passes from a garage owner doing business with the city. Dixon fired her sister only after city ethics officials ruled the job improper. At a council meeting, she called my stories a "witch hunt," apologizing not for nepotism, but for "the appearance of nepotism."
There was also a no-bid contract she gave to friend and former campaign chairman, Dale G. Clark. After The Sun exposed his job as the council's computer consultant, Dixon admitted that the deal was "wrong," and promised to obtain bids. That was the last anyone heard of the deal—until 2006, when it would trigger the events that would end in her conviction.
"Who told you that?"
Dixon was angry. It was Feb. 2, 2006 and the then Council president had just left a committee hearing when I confronted her. The hearing had been held to investigate Comcast's minority subcontracting efforts. Minority firms had complained that they were losing work from the cable company, whose city franchise was subject to Council oversight. A source had told me the hearing had an unknown potential beneficiary: Dixon's sister.
One firm that had lost Comcast work was Utech, Dixon said in the hearing. But she never said that her sister worked for Utech, a company certified as a minority vendor. If true, Dixon's failure to disclose her sister's job seemed to violate ethics rules. So, too, did her involvement in a hearing benefiting a sibling.
After the hearing, I approached Dixon carefully. I asked if her sister worked for one of the companies mentioned at the hearing.
"Who told you that?" she demanded. I didn't reveal my source. Whoever leaked that was seeking to damage her in a year when she was poised to become mayor if Martin O'Malley became governor, she said.
That sounds like a "yes," I said. Would she identify the firm?
"No," she said. "You figure it out." She stormed off. But then she stopped, turned and added: "Not that I'm trying to hide anything."
Her angry reaction that day and in the following week kept the story alive. Dixon claimed she had disclosed her sister's Utech job on ethics forms. Not true. She amended the form only after The Sun story. Then, she said she never participated in official matters involving Utech. Also not true. Records showed she voted on several Utech items.
She said she had always mentioned her sister's connection at such hearings. Again, false. Transcripts showed no such disclosures. Finally, she blamed staff for not alerting her when Utech was involved in official business.
Days later, a different source alerted me that the city still contracted a company run by Dale G. Clark, five years after Dixon had sworn to scrap Clark's no-bid job. Clark had been earning about $100,000 a year as the City Council's computer consultant without a contract. An e-mail that surfaced later from Dixon's chief of staff to Clark told him to keep his bills below $5,000, the threshold for scrutiny by the city's spending board.
Dixon's office called it a major oversight. Staff again took the blame.
As more Clark stories unfolded, my desk phone rang. A furious Dixon was on the other end. She yelled at me for persisting with the story. She dropped two f-bombs and said I had reduced her chief of staff to tears.
"What are you doing?" she said.
That was my question to her. And I wasn't the only one who wanted answers.
In March 2006, State Prosecutor Rohrbaugh, who was appointed by Republican Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., began an investigation by subpoenaing documents related to Utech's city contracts and Clark's dealings with the city. The investigation dragged on for two years with prosecutors raiding the offices of Utech, Dale Clark, and developer Ronald H. Lipscomb, Dixon's one-time boyfriend.
Boyer and Clark eventually pleaded guilty to tax charges that never mentioned Dixon. Lipscomb ultimately pleaded guilty to an unrelated campaign finance violation.
But in the process of the investigation, Rohrbaugh gathered leads and evidence that would prove crucial in the case he eventually brought against Dixon. Had the prosecutor used Dixon's questionable behavior as a shield for a fishing expedition, aimed at bringing the popular democratic mayor down?
Defense attorney Billy Murphy says Rohrbaugh went "hunting for an elephant and came back with a caterpillar." He wants Dixon to be "his swan song as a prosecutor," he says. Rohrbaugh denies such allegations.
In 2008, prosecutors raided Dixon's home, revealing a twist in the investigation. Now, they were going after gifts that Lipscomb had given Dixon when the two traveled, on his dime, to Chicago, New York, and Avon, CO.
The mayor admitted she had a relationship with Lipscomb in 2003 and 2004, but said that it never influenced her votes on projects in which Lipscomb was involved.
Dixon never disclosed Lipscomb's gifts on forms that require elected officials to list gifts from people with city business.
The indictment against Dixon in January 2009 also claimed that she stole gift cards that she had asked Lipscomb and developer Patrick Turner to donate to a city charity in 2005. Investigators traced many of the cards to purchases made by Dixon for personal use. She bought a video camera and video game equipment, and gave cards to City Hall staff.
Dixon was also accused of stealing gift cards from a holiday program called the Holly Trolley, which distributed them in poor neighborhoods. Several of those cards were found in a Victoria's Secret bag in her home.
During the November trial, prosecutors never called Lipscomb to testify, leading the judge to dismiss the charges related to him. (Lipscomb's elaborate gifts, however, are central to Dixon's case in March that alleges she committed perjury by not disclosing them.)
But Turner did testify. He said Dixon asked him to donate cards to charity. Turner bought $1,000 in gift cards from Best Buy and Target, and delivered them to City Hall in an envelope marked with Dixon's name.
Dixon's lawyers suggested she confused the cards with the anonymous personal gifts that Lipscomb used to deliver to City Hall.
The jury convicted Dixon of embezzling about $500 in gift cards donated by Turner.
The state constitution generally says a sitting mayor must be removed from office if convicted of a felony or misdemeanor, but Dixon seems determined to stay. Her lawyers have requested a new trial, and some suggest she can't be removed from the mayor's office for actions she took while council president.
Julius Henson, a campaign strategist, says the mayor should resign. "Her instinct is to fight," he says, suggesting Dixon could have avoided prosecution and kept her $83,000 pension if she had stepped down before the trial. "She should have made a deal."
Others say she should fight. "We make the price of being an elected official so high that you can't be human, with faults," says Murphy. "We rob the citizens of excellent leadership."
Rohrbaugh, however, says the jury showed that "everybody should be treated equally." Just as Lindbergh Carpenter, a city housing official, was convicted of stealing gift cards, Dixon should be held accountable. "Nobody is above the law," Rohrbaugh said.
Only days after her conviction did Dixon say she "deeply regrets" having put the city through the trial. If her lawyers succeed in overturning her conviction, she will have proven just how tough she is.
But that reluctance to apologize or to step down reveals to some the very attitude that got her in trouble—and leaves the city she loves with weakened leadership.
"Her stubbornness got her in this place," says Baltimore Circuit Court clerk Frank Conaway Sr. "But I don't relish anybody's downfall. It rubs off on all of us."