Parties praise ethics rebuke

Panel's reprimand of Mitchell called fair, appropriate

Voters `ultimate arbiter'

Senator's father says loan controversy may help re-election bid

February 28, 2002|By Ivan Penn | Ivan Penn,SUN STAFF

Legislative leaders of both parties praised yesterday the ethics committee's reprimand of Sen. Clarence M. Mitchell IV for his failure to disclose a $10,000 loan arranged by three Baltimore businessmen who have had issues before the legislature.

Sen. Nathaniel J. McFadden, a fellow Baltimore Democrat and chairman of the city Senate delegation, said legislators must guard against any appearance of impropriety or face the consequences meted out against Mitchell.

"I think they were fair," McFadden said of the committee. "Those who violate the rules are at some point going to pay."

Sen. J. Lowell Stoltzfus, a Somerset County Republican and Senate minority leader, said it seemed clear from what he understood about the case that Mitchell simply took a loan that he failed to report. But that kind of mistake can be costly, he said.

"I think he made some mistakes, and the committee responded appropriately," Stoltzfus said. Even so, he said he would not be averse to Mitchell joining the Republican Party, as he had pledged this year to do in protest of the governor's redistricting plan. "We're not going to close the door on anybody."

The General Assembly's ethics committee issued a harsh public reprimand Tuesday to Mitchell, a 39-year-old Baltimore Democrat, for accepting a $10,000 loan from bus company owner Joe Louis Gladney in 1997, when Mitchell was a state delegate. City bail bondsman John Griffin helped arrange the loan, and another bail bondsman, Robert M. Campbell, co-signed.

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. He reported the loan to the ethics committee on the eve of an article in The Sun describing the deal.

The senator never repaid any of the money, and he and Campbell were sued in July to collect the debt, which with interest now totals more than $18,000.

Mitchell, through an aide, declined yesterday to comment.

The sanction was one of the ethics committee's toughest penalties, but such government watchdog organizations as Common Cause Maryland said they viewed it as little more than a slap on the wrist.

Former Sen. Julian L. Lapides, a former co-chairman of the legislative ethics committee, defended the reprimand, saying a public sanction has a greater impact than some people realize. He said public knowledge of an ethics violation could hurt a lawmaker at the polls.

"The truth is, it's very unusual for a violation to get to the public forum," Lapides said.

The 12-member committee usually issues a confidential statement of discipline to lawmakers found to have violated state ethics law. But in Mitchell's case, the panel took the unusual step of releasing a public statement.

Committee members also could have recommended that the entire Senate vote to reprimand Mitchell. Committee officials, however, said the law allowed them to issue the public statement without having to bring it to the full Senate, and they did not want to bog down the legislature during the busiest time of the 90-day session.

None of Mitchell's colleagues said his actions warranted expulsion -- the ultimate sanction that can be recommended by the committee and a penalty carried out just once in more than 200 years.

"We're well into the last year of a four-year term," said Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller. "The ultimate arbiter will be the voters of Baltimore City."

Stephen Montanarelli, the state's prosecutor, said he would review the ethics committee's findings before deciding whether to investigate the case.

The state Ethics Commission, which reviews financial disclosures of public officials, is expected to consider the case. The commission meets March 21.

Mitchell's father, former Sen. Clarence M. Mitchell III, who was in Annapolis yesterday, said he believes the issues regarding the loan are strengthening Mitchell's election chances.

"There are people in the community who are outraged," the elder Mitchell said. "I run into people on the streets who say, `I'm with you. I'm with your boy.'"

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