Mitchell's day job on hold for mayor race

Bank puts candidate on leave to avoid any conflict of interest

January 27, 2007|By Laura Vozzella | Laura Vozzella,Sun reporter

Keiffer J. Mitchell Jr.'s decision to run for Baltimore mayor has cost him his day job at Harbor Bank, a development the city councilman blames on "Nixonesque politics."

"I was told that my colleagues in politics had concerns about me working at Harbor Bank and that's all I can say," said Mitchell, who will begin an unpaid leave of absence Tuesday.

"It's a shame that Mr. [Joseph] Haskins" - the bank's chief executive - "and the bank have been subjected to what I term as Nixonesque politics."

Haskins acknowledged yesterday that the bank placed Mitchell on leave after people - he's not saying who - objected to a perceived mix of banking and politics. Haskins called their concerns - that the bank might back Mitchell's run, or that Mitchell might be able to peek into his rivals' campaign accounts - unfounded but nevertheless distracting.

"Too many calls were coming in relative to Keiffer and the office of mayor," Haskins said. "At one point, I was answering more calls about what Keiffer was doing about the mayoral race than about banking. It was too much of a distraction for the bank.

"The question can surface, `Can he have insider information?' I'm trying to explain that away - the dual control, the division of assignments, the access codes. ... Look at the time I'm spending with you," he told a reporter with a laugh. "You don't have an account with me. I'm not making any money for my shareholders."

Part of an extended political family that includes storied civil rights figures, Mitchell announced he was running for mayor eight days ago on an Upton street corner where he is known for setting up an open-air office.

Mitchell had revealed his intention to run earlier in the month. Days after his announcement, the three-term councilman was stripped of his post as chairman of the influential Taxation and Finance Committee. Council President Stephanie C. Rawlings Blake has said the move wasn't political, but Mitchell called it "petty politics."

He had harsher words for this latest twist.

"It's now affecting my family," he said. "I've got more fire in the belly now and we're going to make sure we're going to campaign hard. These types of tactics and this kind of shadow corruption won't be tolerated."

Haskins declined to say who voiced concerns about Mitchell's employment. Asked about Mayor Sheila Dixon, Mitchell's most prominent rival - and whose campaign account is at the bank - he said: "I don't want to get into names."

Asked if Dixon or her staff had contacted the bank about Mitchell, the mayor declined to comment through spokesman Anthony McCarthy.

Mitchell did not accuse Dixon but said the bank was responding to threats to close city accounts with the bank. The mayor presumably is the only candidate with the power to move city money out of a particular bank.

"I believe there was pressure put on the bank and Mr. Haskins," Mitchell said. "They hold deposits of city accounts and things like that. The bank has to look out for its customers and its shareholders."

Haskins said no one made any threats to pull city or campaign accounts out of the bank. City finance officials could not be reached yesterday to determine how much money the city has in Harbor accounts, but Haskins said city deposits did not represent a big chunk of his business.

"I got no threats from anyone," he said. "I'm one of those old-fashioned folks. If I was threatened, I'd be less likely to do it. If you look at Harbor and what I've been able to do, I run against the grain."

Mitchell, 39, said his supervisor asked him to take an unpaid leave of absence Wednesday - one day after giving him a positive evaluation for his work as a business development officer.

A former history teacher at Boys' Latin School of Maryland, Mitchell joined the bank as a teller in April 2005 after a stint as a stay-at-home father. With his wife at home with their two preschoolers these days, Mitchell - who earns $48,000 a year as a councilman and sells fresh-squeezed juice at the farmers market on weekends - had planned to stay on at the bank until May or June, when the campaign for the September Democratic primary is expected to intensify. He said Haskins had been aware of those plans all along.

"I told him [Haskins] I was running for mayor before my parents. That was back in December," Mitchell said. "I told my parents a week later. That's the kind of respect I have for him. He's been a tremendous mentor for me. It's a shame."

Mitchell said he met with Haskins the week he formally declared he was running, and the bank executive voiced no concerns.

But Haskins said the flurry of calls he's received since Mitchell's announcement have convinced him that Mitchell needed to go on leave sooner than planned.

"I don't want to get the bank caught up in the middle of political activity, because our business is about banking and finance," Haskins said.

Haskins has made donations to a variety of politicians over the years, mostly Democrats in Baltimore and Baltimore County, according to state campaign finance records. He made a pair of $250 donations to Dixon last year, and Harbor Bank made a pair of $250 donations to Dixon in 2005. Haskins gave $50 to Mitchell in 2000 and again in 2003.

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