Baltimore Mayor Sheila Dixon was indicted yesterday on twelve counts that range from perjury to theft. Which sounds pretty ominous, but the Baltimore Sun is running a separate long story headined "Mayor's Supporters Underwhelmed by Charges," and after reading these stories I have to say that I am also underwhelmed.
Dixon is one of those politicians around whom an aura of corruption has long hovered. For one thing, she dresses better than she ought to be able to afford (her $400 Jimmy Choo sandals get mentioned regularly), she seems to be out on the town a lot, and she always carries around plenty of cash. She once spent most of a public meeting with Comcast cable executives haranguing them about giving more work to minority-owned, city-based contractors, and the Sun discovered that of the three such firms one is owned by Dixon's sister. Five or six years ago there was a big Federal investigation of Baltimore City government, with several spectacular FBI raids, but they eventually dropped the whole thing without handing down any indictments.
So nobody was much surprised when the state district attorney announced that she was one of the main targets of his three-year-long investigation into city corruption. And over those three years there have been rumors of serious bribery charges, large sums of cash given in exchange for important favors. But there are no such charges in the indictment. Most of the charges relate to gifts given to Dixon by a city developer who was her boyfriend for a while and remains her friend. Dixon says she didn't have to list those gifts on financial disclosure forms because her boyfriend didn't technically "do business with the city." I don't know what the law is on this, but this sort of technical dispute is unlikely to impress a jury as criminal behavior. Not to mention that nowhere in the indictment is there even a hint that Dixon did anything improper in return for those gifts, or even that the boyfriend had any business under city review for which he was likely to need any favors. I think the prosecutor is going to have a hard time getting any convictions. Any Baltimore jury is likely to be made up largely of Dixon's biggest supporters, black women, who tend to see the whole thing as a partisan, racist witch hunt.
The most disturbing charge against Dixon is that she took gift cards that were supposed to be distributed to the poor and used them for herself. But even this turns out not to be so clear-cut. She did give at least one such card to someone on her staff, but her lawyers will probably concoct some sob story to justify that. When the FBI raided her house, the one incriminating thing they found (so far as we know) was five of those cards. That looks pretty bad, but Dixon will probably say that she was intending to give them to some acquaintance who runs a charity but lost them.
I don't know how I feel about this. I don't doubt that Dixon is corrupt in some way, but I find the level of prosecutorial effort that went into creating this unimpressive list of charges downright frightening. These prosecutors, Republican appointees, went after Baltimore city government with everything they had. They went through four grand juries over three years, spending millions of dollars. They worked their press connections to spread damaging rumors about Dixon and former mayor (now governor) Martin O'Malley, then didn't back up those rumors with charges. And remember, this came after a major FBI investigation that turned up nothing. How many people in public life could pass that level of scrutiny without something unsavory coming to light? Public corruption is a serious matter, but so is unbridled prosecutorial power.
I will withhold judgment until we see what the prosecution can produce in court, or whether Dixon chooses to cop a plea. For now, I remain suspicious of everyone on both sides.