Baltimore City Scandal Prospects

–Richard E. Vatz

Just a few quick initial reactions to the indictments this week of Mayor Sheila Dixon and Baltimore City Councilwoman Helen L. Holton.

Intuitively, there is some incredulity for the casual observer because the political agents charged do not have the public arrogance usually associated with wrongdoing. Every time I see Mayor Dixon on the news I feel as if I am watching a woman who is woefully naive. Her self-possessed explanation as to why she would keep her $3,700 pay raise at a time, as I wrote on this page weeks ago, of many of her constituents’ recession-induced penury, was simply not in touch with reality and was recanted shortly afterward. Her defense for taking the terribly-timed raise, as opposed to giving it to charity even as a one-time concession, was self-pitying and ignored her constituents’ worse straits: “Not doing what I do seven days a week, 24 hours a day, trying to raise a family and having a daughter in college…people don’t expect us to get paid. They want us do to this for free. That’s fine and good and no one would mind doing that, but then we would have to find other jobs.” On the opposite end of public ethos is the just-impeached Illinois Governor Rod Blagojevich, whose manifest smarminess condemns him immediately to public inferences of guilt.

That said, the difference between proper and improper commerce between politicians and lobbyists is sometimes a fine line. The rules are labyrinthine, and determining what is an illegal quid pro quo is difficult.

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Regardless, two qualities of politicians are evidence of a legal and/or ethical line being crossed: deception and an immediate, temporal nexus between contributions and politicians’ actions benefitting their benefactors.

Mayor Dixon in violation of city regulations arranged and paid for her sister’s employment, but did not disclose it on a city ethics form. She voted on matters material to her sister’s company while indicating she had abstained. She and developer Ronald Lipscomb traveled to New York on the same day she voted for a $13 million project of his. She stealthily received fur coats from him.

Baltimore City Councilwoman Helen L. Holton actually had Mr. Lipscomb pay for a $12,500 political poll for her while she was helping to effect tax breaks for the Inner Harbor East Project, in which Mr. Lipscomb had an interest, among other financial entanglements. Councilwoman Holton did not declare any payments as part of a Financial Disclosure Report.

As you will hear ad nauseam in the next few weeks, these are accusations, not convictions, but one of the clear lessons in the complicated world of political financing is to avoid deception and avoid near-patent quid pro quos of contributions and political payoffs.

Richard E. Vatz is professor of political rhetoric at Towson University. — Please find below an announcement below about Suzanne Hill’s upcoming Ron Smith Show Fans extravaganza:

Want to learn more about the workings of Maryland’s General Assembly? Ron Smith Show Fans are going to Annapolis again! The 2008 Regular Session of the Maryland General Assembly saw 2641 bills submitted, of which over 700 were made into law. The 2009 Session begins on January 14 and continues for 90 days.

Join us Friday, Jan. 30, at 6:00pm. Delegate Don Dwyer will inform us about the legislature, about the process of committee hearings where our legislators get pro-and-con input from citizens, about issues this upcoming Session, and why it’s important to get involved. He’ll show us into a committee room and give us pointers for testifying. Get to know your state capital and enjoy a Friday evening in Annapolis with others who want MD government to be accountable to its citizens and to the law.

WHO: Any Interested Citizen.
WHEN: Friday, Jan. 30, 2009. Meet by 5:45pm in front of the House Office Building.
In Case of Inclement Weather: Alternate date is Friday, Feb. 6.
HOW: We can coordinate carpools or meet there.
PARKING: Stadium Parking Lot at Gate 5 (allow time for the shuttle) or Noah Hillman Garage downtown at 150 Gorman Street ($2 flat rate after 4:00pm).
DETAILS: We’ll meet Del. Dwyer at 6pm in the House Office Building lobby. He will speak to us and show us into a hearing room. Afterward we can walk by and point out the Senate Office Building, Legislative Services, Lawyers’ Mall, and Republican Headquarters, then go for food/drinks in a local eatery.

RSVP to Suzanne Hill by Jan. 26 at Please give your name, phone number, number of people, and if you would like to carpool with others or will meet us in front of the House Office Building.

Ron Smith Show Fans meet each month to continue the engaging discussion they hear on Ron’s show and to stay informed about the local political scene that they would like to influence. To learn more, visit or email

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