Mitchell's reprimand

Senator's "loan": Lawmakers can't take money from businessmen without corrupting the system.

March 04, 2002

PUNISHMENT METED out against Sen. Clarence M. Mitchell IV could go beyond a scolding if criminal charges are brought, and - even more certainly - when voters become his judge.

The Assembly's Joint Committee on Legislative Ethics has laid out a case that compels investigation by the state prosecutor. On the public record so far, it's difficult to imagine a clearer case of corrupting the process by which issues should be decided on their merits, not by lawmakers financially beholden to the interests involved.

First, the senator took a $10,000 loan from businessmen whose financial interests he was in a position to promote. Though called a loan when it was taken in 1997, no repayment has ever been made, making it look more like a payoff.

Mr. Mitchell subsequently voted to kill legislation that would have hurt bail bondsmen such as the one who co-signed for the loan. The bill would have made it easier for defendants to remain out of jail without bail. So he not only took money, he took it in a way that might cost his constituents both money and freedom. Shameful.

The ethics panel issued an official reprimand after learning of the unpaid loan in a newspaper story by The Sun's Ivan Penn.

Maryland law prohibits legislators from "soliciting, accepting, or agreeing to accept a loan" from someone standing to benefit from that legislator's votes or influence.

The money came from the owner of a bus company who was asked to make the loan by two bail bondsmen, one of whom co-signed the note. Having solicited and taken the money, Mr. Mitchell then withdrew a bill he had filed that would have charged bondsmen a fee on the value of bonds written in Baltimore Circuit Court. Two years later, he cast the key vote killing legislation that would have provided lawyers for defendants at bail hearings, possibly allowing some to be released without bail.

The senator has had no comment. His father, former Sen. Clarence M. Mitchell III, who was convicted on political corruption charges in 1987, says his son's offense will be seen by voters as harassment and will help him at the polls.

The appropriate response would be disgust - and Mr. Mitchell's defeat in this year's election.

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