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Charitable Coverage

By Gadi Dechter | Posted 3/29/2006

Baltimore’s top elected African-American official is being investigated by the state prosecutor amid mounting evidence of possible corruption. That same politician, City Council President Sheila Dixon, and others—many of them also black—have under media pressure recently returned thousands of dollars in illegal political donations from churches, most of them serving primarily black congregations.

Both stories would seem to be of special interest to Baltimore’s majority-black population, though readers who rely on the venerable weekly newspaper that describes itself as “the leading news provider for African Americans” in Baltimore will not have read about these stories in its pages.

In the seven weeks since The Sun broke both stories, and followed up with extensive coverage, the 11,000-circulation Baltimore Afro-American newspaper has made no mention of either, not even in editorials or wire stories.

“It was by no design that those things haven’t been reacted to,” says Afro editor Dorothy Boulware, citing a small editorial staff and a preference to focus on stories not already reported by the mainstream press. “We plan out our coverage, and it’s not reactionary. It’s mostly things that we think are important to our readers.”

Boulware did allow that both stories were “important” and says, “I’m sure that we will provide some kind of coverage for our readers at the appropriate time.”

The free black weekly Baltimore Times, whose motto is “Positive News for Positive People,” has also neglected to report or comment on the allegations of cronyism and nepotism currently dogging Dixon, who will automatically assume the mayoralty should Martin O’Malley be elected governor in November.

At press time, Baltimore’s other newspapers—The Daily Record, The Baltimore Business Journal, and City Paper—had also not written about the Dixon affair. Local broadcast media, on the other hand, have tended to follow The Sun with their own reporting.

Sun City Hall reporter Doug Donovan first reported on Feb. 6 about Dixon’s formal intervention on behalf of a city contractor, Union Technologies (Utech), that employs her sister and former campaign treasurer, Janice Dixon. Subsequent Sun stories revealed that, despite her earlier denials, Dixon had voted on multiple occasions to award lucrative government contracts to Utech, votes that are proscribed by the city’s ethics laws. Donovan’s reporting led first to an ongoing investigation by the city’s Board of Ethics, and then by the state prosecutor. In addition to contracts favoring her sister, Donovan also reported March 12 that Dixon had since 1999 “steered government work worth at least $600,000 to her former campaign chairman [Dale Clark], most of the time without a written contract.” Those unauthorized contracts have since also become the subject of the
state’s investigation.

Dixon has denied any intentional wrongdoing, and complained she is the subject of an organized campaign to “destroy my character.”

“When I was editor there, I’d have been all over it,” says James Michael Brodie, an English teacher at Walbrook High School who briefly edited the Afro in 1996, and later worked for two years at City Paper. “But I don’t know what pressures they’re under, or what pressures they perceive themselves to be under.”

Other former Afro editors declined to comment, but Brodie cautioned against holding the 114-year-old publication to its historical reputation as a paper focused on community news and black advocacy, but also on hard-hitting investigative journalism. “I think the Afro these days is living on the reputation of what it was a half-century ago,” he says. “There was a time when, if you wanted to know the news [in the black community], you would have to go there. That’s not the case anymore.”

Besides, Brodie says, The Sun is “the 800-pound gorilla” in Baltimore news-gathering, and a tough act to follow when it aggressively pursues a local story.

Indeed, when asked why this paper has also neglected to report on the unfolding Dixon story, City Paper managing editor Erin Sullivan responds similarly to the Afro’s editor. “We try hard not to repeat the same stories the daily paper does,” Sullivan says. “If we can advance a story or bring something new to the story or make it our own, we absolutely will cover it . . . but I’m afraid that if we tried to jump into the fray right now, our coverage would be a mile wide and an inch deep. Not to mention that it would probably be very similar to what’s appearing in The Sun right now.”

Arthur Murphy, a political consultant and longtime former Afro board member (and current stockholder), says he is “a little” surprised by the Afro’s lack of coverage of Dixon’s recent troubles, but “not overwhelmed by it.”

“It hasn’t hit the fan yet,” he says of the state’s investigation. “It just smells bad.” Murphy consulted for Dixon during her last campaign, and now represents a likely Dixon opponent in the next mayoral election (whom he declined to name), should the City Council president choose to run.

Like many candidates, Sheila Dixon’s political committee has spent thousands of dollars in campaign ads in the Afro, which still wields considerable influence in the black community, but Murphy expressed confidence in the separation between business and editorial departments at the paper’s lower Charles Village offices.

“Baltimore is a big small town,” he says. “And there might be personal relationships there, I don’t know. But I doubt seriously whether that would affect the reportage.”

Still, Dixon’s political relationship with the Afro-American appears to have gone beyond routine advertisements. Campaign finance records indicate that Dixon’s campaign made in 2002 two donations to an Afro-run charitable enterprise called the “Mrs. Santa Project,” which distributes clothes, toys, and food to needy families during the Christmas season.

In Maryland, “[c]ampaign funds generally may not be used for charitable purposes,” according to a Maryland State Board of Elections interpretation of election laws.

The elections board web site documents two donations by Sheila Dixon’s campaign to the Afro charity: a January 2002 charge of $500 and a December 2002 charge of $244. In Dixon’s campaign finance filings, both expenditures reference the Mrs. Santa Project.

The elections board routinely audits campaign finance filings for expenditures that may violate laws. In July 2003, it sent Dixon’s campaign a “deficiency notice” citing the two Afro donations, among 22 other questionable campaign expenditures, as requiring a written explanation of “how the expenditure advances the candidacy or the political purpose of the committee.”

In addition to the Afro expenditures, the letter notes, Dixon’s campaign also gave a $214 gift to a Salvation Army “Xmas Project” and a $100 contribution to an AFL-CIO “Christmas Basket Project,” among others.

A copy of the letter, as well as the response from the Dixon campaign, was provided to Media Circus by Jared DeMarinis, the Board of Elections’ campaign finance director.

In her written response, Dixon’s former campaign treasurer Janice Dixon addressed only the Salvation Army gift, stating that “campaign funds made to Salvation Army were made without my knowledge that contributions for charitable purposes cannot be done. . . .this type of mistake will not reoccur.”

When asked last week why the campaign made donations to the Afro charity, Janice Dixon said: “To help children. Children in our community. What other purpose would there be, other than to help children in Baltimore City?”

Maryland’s election law is vague on the subject of campaign expenditures, requiring only that they be “election related; that is, they must enhance the candidate’s election chances, and one must be able to conclude that they would not have been incurred if there had been no candidacy.”

A March 2005 Washington Post investigation of campaign-fund expenses by Maryland lawmakers revealed that such funds are routinely used to make charitable donations, as well as for myriad personal expenses.

It’s not clear whether the Dixon campaign’s donations to the Afro charity would ultimately pass muster as being “election related.” But the composition of the board of directors at Afro Charities, the nonprofit arm of Afro-American Newspapers, underscores the potential mingling in a “big small town” of political, business, media, and charity interests.

Among the Afro Charities directors at the time of her campaign’s gifts was a future Dixon campaign donor who would later play a role in the City Council president’s ethical troubles: former city solicitor Neal Janey, hired by the city to represent Dixon and other City Council members in a 2004 federal nepotism probe.

Also on the board was Jeanne Hitchcock, the current deputy mayor for intergovernmental affairs. Hitchcock is the ex-wife of Claude Edward Hitchcock, the registered agent for Utech. Utech is the city contractor employing Janice Dixon, and on whose behalf Dixon intervened and voted for at city Board of Estimates meetings, which she chairs.

Afro publisher John Oliver and Dixon’s spokesperson didn’t return calls for comment.

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