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Graft Guide

Dixon's gift cards are part of a larger graft culture in Baltimore government

Posted 12/1/2009

Years ago when City Paper was trying to figure out why city buildings were collapsing with regularity and why a few dicey contractors--the notorious Jose Morales and the since-bankrupt Matthew Riemer of Bayside Properties , for example--were allowed to demolish houses, damage neighboring property and wildly overbuild, a City Hall veteran took The Nose aside and--off the record--explained that things were actually improving.

"You should have seen these guys a few years ago around Christmas time," he said. "All these contractors coming in with loads of stuff--booze, cases and cases of booze, baskets, football tickets, everything for the building inspectors."

As this source explained, city employees at all levels have a tradition and culture of accepting gifts. They're not bribes, per se, because it's not usually a quid pro quo situation. It's instead a relationship situation. Ethics rules have damped this culture, the informant explained, but by no means eradicated it.

The case of Mayor Sheila Dixon and the gift cards that have led to her criminal trial--did she steal them? Misappropriate them? Innocently misconstrue their givers' intended purpose?--is just the latest manifestation of the culture ingrained in the city's governing class.

The pattern can be seen in the city's pension boards, where only one pension-board member, Ernest Glinka, filed a gift report saying he didn't take any free trips or gifts (except for a flashlight) and didn't think his fellow board members should have either ("Exotic Ethics," The Nose, April 12, 2006). This is big in Housing (where the mayor's "Holly Trolley" cache originated). Under the same mindset, copper is stripped from city buildings, spare parts from city computers, and cash from petty accounts.

This kind of thing happens in every city, as lower-level workers pull strings for family or friends, keeping the dead weight of red tape off this or that person in the interest of kindness and decency. And politicians influence the bureaucracy as well--as Dixon did recently in decreeing that a certain flamingo should be allowed to fly over Hampden for half the usual permit cost.

In small doses, the petty graft and favoritism grease the city's gears. The problem comes when gifts cease being the exception, and start becoming the rule--a prerequisite. At that point, it's all grease and no gears, and you end up with a place like Mexico City, or Mumbai, or Kandahar. Or Baltimore.

Historically, Baltimore is not a city of laws. It is a one-party, strong-mayor city ruled by public officials, both high and low, who rationalize their caprice according to their own sense of justice and discretion. Whether it's a cop who allegedly takes expensive watches from drug dealers ("Costly Charges," Mobtown Beat, Nov. 11), a building inspector who approves a half-assed deck, or a mayor who "twist[s] some arms" (her own words) to get her boyfriend's development a big city-tax break, giving gifts (and doing favors) is the expected norm. Nobody thinks it's a big deal until some outsider comes along to remind everyone what the law says.

This is probably why Westport developer Patrick Turner gripped the arms of his chair uncomfortably as he testified for the prosecution. Dixon is on trial, not the system in which she (and he) operates.

Bribery charges against Dixon had already been dropped, of course, because of a fascinating interpretation of the law which holds that, in Maryland at least, if a politician takes official action in response to a gift, the politician cannot be charged with accepting a bribe. In other words, if they stay bought, they've committed no crime.

It's called legislative immunity, and, in effect, it puts developers on notice that they better keep those charitable gifts flowing if they don't want to lose millions of dollars they've sunk into their developments. It's just one reason the system is primed with hypocrisy.

In the old days, everyone knew government officials were greased. Nowadays, with ethics rules and gift-reporting protocols, politicians get to pretend they run a clean system--and they also have to pretend to be shocked whenever they find out someone lower in the pecking order stole a few gift cards (as Lindbergh Carpenter, formerly an $80,000/year city-housing official, did), or someone cashed someone else's reimbursement check (as another minor official accidentally did ["Overdue Inspection," Mobtown Beat, June 3, 2009]). Or a city employee sold parts from city-owned computers on eBay (as happened, according to a city Inspector General's report). Those guys get fired; their bosses get "legislative immunity," and citizens are told to make believe that stacks of gift cards materializing in the mayor's office in unmarked envelopes are and were intended for "charity."

Sheila Dixon is not the end of it.

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Tags: sheila dixon, ronald lipscomb, patrick turner

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