After more than six days of deliberation, a jury convicted Baltimore Mayor Sheila Dixon of embezzlement Tuesday, sending City Hall into confusion and putting the once-bright political future of the city’s first female mayor into jeopardy.
The conviction was on a misdemeanor charge of "fraudulent misappropriation of a fiduciary." It alleged that the mayor had taken for her personal use more than $600 worth of Target and Best Buy gift cards that had been donated by a prominent local developer for the use of impoverished residents.
The jury, however, acquitted Mayor Dixon of two felony theft charges and another misdemeanor charge. It did not reach a decision on another count of fraudulent misappropriation of a fiduciary.
The verdict throws Baltimore’s political structure into disarray, since it is unclear how long Dixon will be able to stay in office.
Can she stay in office?
According to the Maryland constitution, public office holders are automatically suspended if they are convicted of certain crimes. But the state attorney general has said that Dixon will not be officially “convicted” until she is sentenced – a legal step that might not happen for months, and only if the judge rejects a number of post-trial motions her lawyers have vowed to file.
Even then, legal experts give different opinions about whether her conviction fits one of the criteria for removal: that the offense be related to the office holder’s public duties and responsibilities.
On the one side, lawyers say, the gift cards came through the mayor’s office. But on the other, she could argue that they were not directly related to any of her official duties.
“The distinction might be drawn between embezzling city funds versus embezzling funds from a charity donation kitty that was never part of city funds, and never part of her duties as mayor,” says David Gray, a professor at the University of Maryland School of Law.
Baltimore politics in confusion
For the time being, then, her status is up in the air. The confusion causes particular problems for Baltimore. The city has one of the most legally powerful mayors in the country, and little municipal business goes forward without her guidance and approval.
“The mayor basically holds all the cards,” says Donald Norris, chair of the Department of Public Policy at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County. “This really could mean gridlock … and it will probably mean that everybody is going to be walking around on eggshells until this thing is revolved.”
If Dixon is removed from office, the city council president – Stephanie Rawlings-Blake, also an African-American woman with a strong political background – will serve as interim mayor.
At City Hall, council members expressed sadness today, giving praise to the embattled Dixon, who has been under investigation for more than four years. For her part, Dixon insisted in a statement that she would remain focused on “keeping Baltimore on course in these trying economic times.”
“The city will still continue to move forward,” she said on the courthouse steps after the verdict. “This city will continue to run…. We won’t miss a step.”
Asked by a reporter whether Dixon was headed home or to City Hall, the mayor pulled her suit sleeve back to check her watch.
“I’m going to City Hall,” she said.
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