Wednesday, January 6, 2010

Dixon Gone, Baltimore Corruption Remains

Sheila Dixon took an Alford plea and copped to taking “thousands of dollars in cash, fur coats, travel and other gifts from Ronald H. Lipscomb, a prominent developer who received tax breaks from the city.” Lipscomb also paid her American Express credit card bill after an extravagant Chicago shopping spree.

As part of the plea bargain Dixon will receive probation before judgment, pay $45,000 to a charity, perform 500 hours of community service and resign her office next month. However, Dixon will still keep her (tax payer funded) $83,000 a year pension and is barred from running for elective office for a mere two years. Although out of power, with that kind of scratch she still may be able to “buy quality.”

In a teary, self-serving statement Dixon did not apologize for her crimes and breach of public trust.

Thus ends pathetic epoch of Sheila Dixon.

However, as I wrote late last month, it’s easy to dislike the arrogant and self-entitled Dixon she’s but a symptom of a larger problem. Dixon may be on her way out, but the development-political complex—the system by which developers pay tribute i.e., campaign cash, in Lipscomb’s case satiating Dixon’s shopping jones—in return for lavish tax breaks for their ├╝ber development projects—remains.

It is the planned, controlled, subsidized failure of the city.

The development-political complex is a metastasizing cancer on the city’s body politic and economic health. Dixon is merely an excised limb. Unfortunately city politicians do not want to be cured, because ending the current system means giving up the power it provides them.


peter said...

Sounds like a call for public financing of campaigns, like they have in Maine and Arizona... would be a welcome change to get developer dollars out of political campaigns that lead to shady urban redevelopment and sprawling disasters in our rural areas.

streiff said...

I think that is a fairly exotic interpretation of what happened here and a misstatement of the problem.

First, I agree with the USSC's view that political contributions are a basic freedom guaranteed by the First Amendment (and when McConnell is revisited I am sure the current limitations will be largely demolished).

This has less to do about political campaigns that it does about good old fashioned pay-to-play.

peter said...

Hi Streiff,

well, in a public financing system it would allow people to run free from private fundraising if they so choose. It would not bar a privately funded candidate, but would allow an alternative that is not beholden to high rollers and political establishments. The Maine example is very instructive in this.

The bigger issue I have is that Dixon was collecting and distributing these gift cards as ways to buy votes from the poor, using developer dollars to do it. A person independent of this influence, running a clean campaign/office would not make sweetheart deals with developers because they don't rely on that money to secure votes.

streiff said...

we'll simply have to disagree on that. Philosophically I think public funding of campaigns is contrary to American political history and injurious to the political system.

Under our current system a person running a clean campaign/office would neither accept bribes/kickbacks or buy votes. It isn't like Dixon is an innocent victim of an unfair system. She's a crook who essentially skated.

As the saying goes, all a lock does is keep an honest man honest. What she did was a conscious act and illegal when she did it. What giving her taxpayer money would do to remedy this escapes me.

peter said...

sorry, i shouldn't have mixed the two issues. and i take it you don't do that $3 checkoff on your federal tax returns for publicly financed presidential campaigns that was useful until Bush/Obama blew it out of the water...

what i am saying is that not feeling beholden to a particular campaign contributor, like a developer who can give lots of money, would be a good thing for Maryland, especially Baltimore.

This blog as well as this post:

both highlight a culture of corruption but do not offer a solution that I can see.

Being part of a system with no real competition, bought and paid for by moneyed interests, is not good for democracy. You may think pubic financing is not the correct route to fix this - I happen to think it works well in other places and may work here.

Bribes and buying votes are a whole other level of corruption. But setting that aside, how does someone (more) ethically honest raise the money to wage an effective campaign? I don't see how they stand a chance against the developer-backed candidate, and it becomes all too easy for the developer's candidate to give them exactly what they want. The corruption seems to follow suit when everyone plays that game and the winners are those that push the (gift-card) envelope the most.

streiff said...

I'm not sure that this conversation is going anywhere as we really aren't seeing the same problem.

1. Dixon took money to arrange zoning changes, tax breaks, and sweatheart land sales to developers. She didn't get campaign contributions to do so.

2. She used the money on personal expenses not for campaigning.

These two items alone suggest, at least to me, that campaign finance reform is not the problem but rather an endemic system of corruption you find any time one political party has no opposition.

Campaign finance reform does not affect in one way or another party domination. It might, arguably, give a one party jurisdiction a wider selection of the same candidate but Baltimore is a solid Democrat city because it votes that way not because of money.

As to developers, the last thing Baltimore needs is to crack down on developers. To the contrary. What is needed, though, is a transparency in land deals, tax breaks, etc. so the city receives fair value.

If a person can't raise enough money to run a campaign I don't see why anyone would want to vote for them.

Nicholas said...

Am I only one who thinks that allowing her to retain the rich pension is an issue here?

streiff said...

While we may not like it, unless it is legal to revoke it we sort of have to live with it.

I think laws that provided for stripping officials of pensions when convicted of corruption would be a major deterrent.

Kevin said...


How much would another trial cost? Factor in the day off of work for 100 people (300 pulled for a jury pool). Then the two days of work missed and costs to businesses. Add in the parking and whatever they pay for a day per juror. Tack on the legal costs for the attorneys for additional weeks worth of work. Pull in the witnesses again... it goes on. Cost? Million? Probably. Present value of the pension for the next 25 years? Not far off (1.17 million @ 5%). Break even at best.

I'm not saying I agree. I'm only offering a different angle.

Nicholas said...

Hey Kevin,

Perhaps, but a major reason to strip the pensions from corrupt officials is to punish the offender and deter potential offenders. Is there a price attached to that?

And if I understood the press reports correctly, current law does allow the pensions to be stripped from public officials convicted of corruption. So the new plea deal is giving her a financial "Get out of Jail Free" card.

streiff said...

the prosecutor was probably, at some level, considering the odds of prevailing with a Baltimore jury and decided to go with the sure thing of a plea bargain rather than see her walk.