making local government more ethical

Favoring Friends and Family Catches Up to Baltimore's Mayor

Two years after allegations made by the Baltimore Sun, two years after state prosecutors began an investigation, a year and a half after being appointed mayor (after being city council president), and six months after being elected mayor, Baltimore's Sheila Dixon's alleged favoring of friends and family has been brought before a grand jury, according to an article in today's Sun.

All sorts of information is coming out, much of it originating from the disclosure that Ms. Dixon had a two-year personal relationship with a major Baltimore developer, who did a great deal of business with the city, some of which Ms. Dixon voted on while president of the Board of Estimates. Also, 57 limited liability companies with supposed ties to the developer, Ronald Lipscomb (this list came out of the state investigation), gave tens of thousands of dollars in campaign contributions to Ms. Dixon, and he spent a lot personally on her, which was not reported.

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There are also allegations that gift cards solicited for needy families were given to city employees.

Dixon has admitted to the relationship and to receipt of gifts from Lipscomb. But, according to an article in the New York Times, Lipscomb's attorney is already defending Lipscomb's actions: "if you're exchanging gifts with someone you're dating, that's quite a different thing from saying you're bribing someone." Yes, but at this point, this is about disclosure, not bribery, and Dixon did not follow the requirements of the ethics law, which doesn't distinguish between the two different kinds of relationship.

The attorney also gave the standard statement, that his client "never in his entire career asked a public official to do anything for him or any of his businesses."  Even the developer of the Garden of Eden asked a favor of the number one guy.

One thing that might come out of this scandal is some changes to Maryland's campaign finance laws. Lipscomb is supposed to have given hundreds of thousands of dollars to Maryland politicians, making great use of the corporate loophole to contribution limit laws. This might bring an end to allowing contributions from corporations at all.

The Sun has a great history of Dixon's ethical problems over the last few years. Here's a summary:

In 2003, she hired her sister in the city council's office. The Board of Ethics forced Dixon to fire her sister.

In 2006, she allegedly used an investigative hearing to press a city contractor on why it was not awarding more work to a company that employed her sister, and voted on a contract to this company. She also did not disclose her sister's involvement with the company until the Sun wrote about it. A year later, the Board of Ethics found no cause, partly due to "the sensitive nature of the matter" and, coincidentally, the decision came down days before she became mayor. Once she became mayor, she would be able to appoint several Board of Ethics members, yet another good argument for independently selected ethics board members. I wrote a blog entry about this in early 2007.

Also in 2006, accusations were made of steering hundreds of thousands of dollars of computer work to a former campaign manager, who often worked without a contract (this is what led to the state investigation).

You can see clearly how things proceeded from nepotism, to voting for a lover's city work, to contracting shenanigans for friends and family. Dixon appears to be ready to fight and not ready to admit to anything. So now another big city's government will be more about ethical scandal than about getting things done.

Robert Wechsler
Director of Research, City Ethics
rwechsler@cityethics.org