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Fraser Smith: A case built on a house of cards

No one ever wants to acknowledge the elephant in the room.

Closing arguments Thursday in the trial of Mayor Sheila Dixon left out almost entirely the underlying issue: Cozy relationships between developers and public officials are corrosive and costly to the taxpayer — and to the system.

If millions of dollars in taxes are forgiven in exchange for thinly veiled payoffs, the practice must be stopped. A dramatic trial can illustrate the cost: jail, loss of hard-won political office and shame.

But after more than a week of trial, after years of costly investigation, the underlying message seemed to fade.

What remained were charges of theft. Misappropriation of funds and misconduct, stemming from the alleged stealing, were in the bill of particulars to be sure. But the broader concerns had disappeared.

A blinding confetti

This is not to say we should tolerate smarmy, secret exchanges of a few dollars here and there. They matter in the making of personal relationships which, often enough, lead to more significant financial exchanges.

In the context of multimillion-dollar developments built on a foundation of tax breaks, the alleged gifts were laughable. More serious charges — like bribery — were not part of the prosecution presumably because they are much harder to prove. No one has said the mayor’s vote on any big tax concession was linked to the gifts she received.

Instead, she was said to have misappropriated dozens of $25 and $50 gift cards. She has said some were gifts from a developer with whom she had a personal relationship; others, she mistook for gifts from him.

At one point, drivers for the developer and the mayor said they had exchanged the cards in the dark at a local Giant parking lot. That scene, like two of the counts against her, was stricken from the record by Visiting Judge Dennis Sweeney after the prosecution chose not to have the developer, Ronald Lipscomb, testify.

The trial then moved forward in a blinding confetti of cards. They were used all over the retail map. They were found in a Victoria’s Secret bag, unused. They were delivered in unmarked envelopes from developers. They were intended as tokens of affection, as stocking stuffers for the needy.  They were handed out at Christmas trolley stops.

Robert Rohrbaugh, the prosecutor, and his assistant, Shelly Glenn, said nothing about what should have been the underlying concern.

Glenn gave a tutorial on misappropriation in the event jurors didn’t know the word. She tried a homely image: If she had collected money from riders in a bicycle race for charity and kept the money, that would be misappropriation, Glenn said.

The crux of her argument was that jurors should not accept the idea that the mayor did not know where some of the cards had come from. She had solicited them, she said.

Equal justice

Rohrbaugh said the case was, in effect, a matter of equal justice: If you are the mayor and you steal, you must face the same panel of peers as any other alleged thief.

Minutes before, as if dealing from a deck of shame, Rorhbaugh had counted out 19 gift cards he said Dixon used for herself and her friends. He began by praising the oratorical skills of his opponent, Arnold Weiner, the mayor’s lead lawyer. But he had game, too.

One by one, he laid gift cards on a rail in front of the jury box. All this spending, he said, came at the expense of children — “children who didn’t have a nice Christmas, a little joy in their lives.”

“If you steal as a public official, that’s misappropriation,” Rohrbaugh said. “If you steal from children, that’s shameful.”

Weiner scoffed. Trumped up, he said. A joke, more or less. Invented or imagined, as the prosecutor sought to breathe air into a “worthless case.”

He mocked Glenn’s bicycle race explanation of misappropriation. The courtroom erupted in loud but abbreviated laughter and applause. The prosecution, he said, had attempted to distract jurors by flaunting the pink-and-silver Victoria’s Secret bag as proof of the mayor’s extravagance at the expense of children.

Rohrbaugh said he accepts the assertion of Mayor Dixon’s pastor that she is a good person.

“Good people,” he said, “do bad things. Happens every day.”

And so the jury retired to consider a case built, officially, on a house of gift cards.

C. Fraser Smith is senior news analyst for WYPR-FM. His column appears Fridays in The Daily Record. His e-mail address is fsmith@wypr.org.