The General Assembly's ethics committee publicly reprimanded Sen. Clarence M. Mitchell IV yesterday for violating state ethics law by quietly accepting a $10,000 loan arranged by three Baltimore businessmen with issues before the legislature.
The sanction is the harshest action taken against a Maryland legislator since 1998, when the state Senate expelled Larry Young after an ethics committee investigation. No other legislator has been publicly chastened by the committee in more than 20 years, officials said.
In a three-page rebuke, the Joint Committee on Legislative Ethics criticized Mitchell for accepting the loan from a bus company owner in 1997, when he was a member of the House of Delegates. Two city bail bondsmen arranged the loan, and one of them co-signed the note.
Although Mitchell sponsored and voted on legislation affecting the bail bond and bus service industries, he did not disclose the loan agreement until this month - a violation of state ethics law.
Mitchell, a Baltimore Democrat, reported the loan to the ethics committee on the eve of an article in The Sun describing the deal.
The senator has made no payments on the debt, which, with interest, is more than $18,000. The ethics committee found that his failure to repay the loan "created the appearance of the loan being a de facto gift."
"This committee finds that by continuing to violate the explicit requirements of the Ethics Law for nearly five years, until the matter was brought to light by the news media, you have brought dishonor upon yourself and upon the institution of the Maryland General Assembly," the panel wrote.
A reporter who went to Mitchell's office yesterday seeking comment was told by an aide that the senator was referring all questions to his attorney.
Mitchell's lawyer, Arthur M. Frank, downplayed the public sanction, saying the committee openly chastened the senator because of pressure from the media.
"Senator Mitchell has no objection to the public knowing" about the loan, Frank said.
Frank called the failure to disclose the loan earlier "an oversight," and said, "He's glad there's closure to the issue so that he can get on with his legislative agenda."
In issuing the reprimand, the ethics committee left open the possibility of further disciplinary action. "The committee has not waived its authority to take further action if additional relevant information is made known to us and such further action is warranted," the panel wrote.
The Ethics Commission, a state agency that also has authority to discipline lawmakers, is expected to review the case against Mitchell. Officials there declined comment, citing confidentiality laws.
The Assembly's ethics committee generally issues confidential sanctions against lawmakers. Sen. Michael J. Collins, co-chairman of the committee, said the panel believed that Mitchell's actions warranted a public rebuke.
"You're five years late in disclosing, and clearly in those five years the conflict of interest was presumed," Collins said.
He said the committee decided to act quickly to avoid having the Assembly get "bogged down" with a disciplinary case late in the 90-day session. He called the public reprimand "a very serious, unprecedented action."
`Slap on the wrist'
The head of a nonprofit government watchdog group said the reprimand does not go far enough.
"If Senator Mitchell's failure to disclose the loan doesn't warrant further action, I don't know what does," said James Browning, executive director of Common Cause/Maryland.
"If this letter and slap on the wrist is all that they do, that's sending the wrong message," Browning said. "The message is that legislators can do this and live to fight another day."
Mitchell, now 39, sought the $10,000 loan from Baltimore bail bondsman John Griffin during the 1997 General Assembly session, when Mitchell was a delegate.
Griffin helped arrange the loan during a meeting at an East Baltimore delicatessen with Mitchell, bail bondsman Robert M. Campbell and bus company owner Joe Louis Gladney Sr., the three men have said.
Gladney owns Gladney Transportation Inc., which provides bus service for city schoolchildren. He agreed to provide the money for the loan, and Campbell agreed to co-sign the deal. Gladney filed suit last July against Mitchell and Campbell seeking the $10,000, plus $8,610 in interest. The case is set to be heard in Baltimore District Court in April.
Despite the loan agreement, Mitchell continued to sponsor and vote on legislation affecting the bail and bus service industries. Among the bail bills Mitchell sponsored was a measure requested by Campbell and Griffin, both officers of the Black Bail Bondsman Association. The bill was never passed.
Campbell recently said he fears he will have to repay Mitchell's loan himself because the senator is steeped in debt.