Mitchell will not testify in club case

Ex-senator to invoke Fifth Amendment, his attorney says

February 05, 2003|By Gail Gibson | Gail Gibson,SUN STAFF

Attorneys for former state Sen. Michael B. Mitchell Sr. told a federal judge yesterday that Mitchell would invoke his Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination if called to testify broadly in a racketeering case where he has been linked in testimony to the leaders of an alleged crime ring.

Federal prosecutors had planned to call Mitchell as a witness in order to introduce a legal agreement, kept by Mitchell in his own files, that outlined the now-disputed ownership interests of a Baltimore County nightclub, which authorities say served as a base of operations for the crime ring in 2000.

Jurors still will see the document, obtained from Mitchell under a federal grand jury subpoena. But they won't hear about it from Mitchell. U.S. District Judge J. Frederick Motz ruled it could be brought into evidence through one of the investigators instead, avoiding a courtroom scene where defense attorneys would be unable to cross-examine the well-known Baltimore figure about why the document was in his possession.

Mitchell, 57, came to U.S. District Court in Baltimore yesterday, but never appeared inside Motz's courtroom and declined to comment on the case.

His attorney, Arthur M. Frank, has maintained that Mitchell had only brief interactions with James E. Gross Sr. and Louis W. Colvin, the two Abingdon men accused of running the crime ring, and knew nothing about their alleged criminal activity. Asked why Mitchell would assert his Fifth Amendment rights, Frank said his client had no reason to testify.

"He's not part of the case. We think his testimony is irrelevant," Frank said outside of court. "He doesn't want to be involved at all because he was never involved in the beginning."

Defense attorneys could attempt to call Mitchell as a witness. Richard C. Bittner, a Glen Burnie attorney who represents Gross, told Motz yesterday that he wanted Mitchell to remain under subpoena as a potential witness.

According to testimony in the 4-week-old trial, Gross and Colvin relied on Mitchell's advice and connections to keep their legitimate business fronts running smoothly as they used Baltimore nightclubs to hide a drug ring that authorities say was responsible for arson, insurance fraud, witness tampering and attempted murder.

The document at issue yesterday involved the ownership of Strawberry's 5000, the troubled Baltimore County nightclub that Colvin said he and Gross operated in 1999 and 2000 - even though they were prohibited, as convicted felons, from running a bar.

To get around that, federal authorities allege that another defendant, James E. Feaster, agreed to serve as the club's owner in name only. Feaster's attorney has maintained that Feaster was the true owner of the club and was unaware of any illegal activity by Gross and Colvin.

In his testimony, Colvin said that he once raised concerns with Gross that Feaster could try to sell the club's valuable liquor license or the business itself without their consent. According to Colvin, Gross said he and Mitchell had worked out a binding agreement with Feaster that could force him to forfeit his home if he tried to assert true ownership of the club.

The document obtained from Mitchell's files is a $350,000 security agreement signed by Gross and Feaster in February 2000 - roughly the period when Feaster's name was put on the Baltimore County liquor license for Strawberry's.

There is no indication on the document of who prepared it.

Mitchell came to court yesterday prepared to testify only that he had the legal agreement in his possession and turned it over to the government under subpoena, his lawyer said in court. Frank said that Mitchell would refuse to testify if asked any other questions about the document or the case.

In interviews, Frank has said that Mitchell's only connection to Gross and Colvin was that he once represented them or their relatives before Mitchell lost his law license and resigned from the state Senate after a federal conviction on obstruction of justice charges in the late 1980s.

When Gross and Colvin came to Mitchell in the late 1990s, Mitchell's only role was to refer them to a practicing attorney for legal advice, Frank has said.

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