Jury Finds Baltimore Mayor Guilty Of Swindling From The Poor

Baltimore Mayor Sheila Dixon was found guilty Tuesday of misdemeanor charges that she made personal use of hundreds of dollars worth of gift cards intended for needy residents in the city. Dixon was acquitted on more serious charges, including felony theft. Donna Marie Owens, a reporter for NPR member station WYPR-FM in Baltimore, explains what the verdict means for both the mayor and the City of Baltimore.

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MICHEL MARTIN, host:

And now to a different city hall, and a very different story about the drama of city politics, the mayor of Baltimore, Sheila Dixon, was convicted on Tuesday of misusing hundreds of dollars worth of gift cards intended to help poor residents. That conviction could end the career of the first African-American woman elected mayor of that city.

Joining us now to talk about the trial, the verdict, and what comes next is Donna Marie Owens. She's a reporter member station WYPR in Baltimore. She's been covering the trial and the investigation that led up to it. Welcome. Thank you for joining us.

DONNA MARIE OWENS: Hi, Michel. How are you?

MARTIN: Well, I'm great. I'm better than Sheila Dixon right now, I would imagine.

(Soundbite of laughter)

MARTIN: I think the one question I think that remains open is that she was acquitted on - she was charged with five counts. She was acquitted on four. She was convicted on one. The one count of which she was convicted is a misdemeanor. Does that mean she has to leave office?

OWENS: Well, at this time, Michel, there have been so many legal theories swirling around Baltimore. Yesterday, Baltimore city solicitor issued a statement saying that the verdict did not impact the mayor's responsibility to continue serving and he said that she would continue serving as the mayor of Baltimore until the case comes to a legal conclusion.

So that's actually in contrast to the Maryland Constitution, which calls for removing elected officials from office once they're sentenced. So it's been very interesting and it's something that everyone here in Baltimore is talking about a great deal.

MARTIN: And what else are they talking about? For example, was there a racial difference in reaction to the case? I mean on the one hand, you know, obviously people would take issue with the fact that she was accused of misusing funds that were donated for poor people. That certainly can't make her look very good. On the other hand, were there differences of opinion about whether this case should even have been brought?

OWENS: This case was just a firecracker on all fronts, Michel. Initially, there was a federal probe which did not end in an indictment. And then the state prosecutor's probe, of course, did end in an indictment in this trial. Baltimore, as you know, is a predominately African-American city and there were some racial perceptions in terms of that the mayor might be mistreated, but I have to say that that was not the overriding thought in my opinion.

I think the main thing was that a lot of people were just trying to find out what the truth was. The mayor had been very quiet throughout the entire time that this investigation has taken place and it's been well over three years, and she said very, very little about it. And so, really this trial was the first opportunity for the citizens of Baltimore to actually hear what was going on.

The mayor did not take the stand, and so we were left really with the defense argument which was basically that, you know, the mayor made a mistake, you know, there was some confusion because a gentleman that she was dating who was a developer who donated a different set of gift cards that perhaps she thought that those gift cards had been mixed up with the gift cards that developer number two had sent down to city hall in a blank envelope. It was all very, you know, odd and little bit salacious actually.

MARTIN: And so let's say she does legally have the right to stay in office. Politically�

OWENS: Mm-hmm.

MARTIN: �is she damaged because the defense argument was that she was confused or she did not keep tight control over these gift cards.

OWENS: Right.

MARTIN: So the question I have is can she survive this politically even if she survives this legally?

OWENS: Well, politically, Michel, it's very interesting. Mayor Dixon is a mayor who engenders a lot of very different types of feelings in Baltimore. She has a very strong base of support from a lot of African-American women. Many of those women came to the courthouse every day and sat there dutifully. There was one woman, 82 years old, who caught the bus every day with a cane and sat in the court and she didn't even know Mayor Dixon. So it was very interesting.

But then, the mayor does have her detractors. There are people who say she's a little bit prickly. She's a very interesting woman. She's a divorced mother of two. She's a black belt in karate. She works out. She bikes to work sometimes. She's just a sort of a tough chick in a way.

And so she's got her detractors, but she also has her supporters and so it will be interesting to see happens. Another African-American woman stands to become mayor if, in deed, the mayor is forced to step down, so it will be interesting.

MARTIN: Well, that is one of the stories about Baltimore. This is the first time that anyone can remember that a major city has been run largely by African-American women. They hold all of the top positions in city leadership. So if she is removed from office that won't change.

Can you just give briefly, very briefly Donna Marie, if you would, what's the timeline for resolving this question? As you mentioned, there's a lot of confusion about what happens next legally. What's the timeline for resolving this?

OWENS: Well, we're saying at this point, we would say several months - weeks and months at least. The defense attorneys are hoping to do some post trial motions and the judge can't enter his final judgment until those matters are settled. They're saying that she could be perhaps sentenced anywhere from 30 to 60 days. So there's just a lot that's open to legal interpretation right now. The mayor is continuing about her business. She's at City Hall today. She was at city hall yesterday after the verdict was rendered and she says that she's going to continue.

MARTIN: Donna Marie Owens is a reporter member station WYPR in Baltimore. She joined us from their studios. Donna Marie, thank you.

OWENS: Thank you, Michel.

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