Spending shifts focus of Mitchell campaign

Councilman says he disagreed with father over use of $40,000

Baltimore Votes

August 04, 2007|By John Fritze | John Fritze,Sun reporter

City Councilman Keiffer J. Mitchell Jr. said yesterday that his father, the former treasurer of his mayoral campaign, believed a portion of the $40,000 in political funds he spent on personal expenses was an appropriate use of campaign money.

In his first effort to calm the storm surrounding the story, Mitchell said he had a disagreement with his father over whether the expenses were proper, but he offered few clues about why his father, a doctor who lives in Guilford, spent money that is supposed to be used only for political expenses.

"We discovered some issues dealing with expenditures that I did not think were related to the campaign, and my father believed that they were related to the campaign," Mitchell said. "It's a disagreement in terms of expenditure of funds related to the campaign."

Mitchell's father, Dr. Keiffer J. Mitchell Sr., 65, resigned Thursday from his son's mayoral campaign after aides discovered the errant spending. The campaign said the elder Mitchell - who has not returned phone calls seeking comment - reimbursed the campaign.

State law prohibits political campaigns from spending political money on personal expenses unless the costs directly benefit the candidate.

Among the largest expenses, according to the campaign, was $14,151 to pay hotel costs at the Burkshire Marriott in Towson while the candidate's mother was recovering from knee surgery. Another $19,000 is unaccounted for, which ended up with individuals "unknown to the campaign," in checks made out to cash, or in checks that were cashed by unknown people.

The Mitchell campaign - which is running in part on a message of openness and transparency - declined The Sun's request to review copies of the campaign checks or an itemized list of expenditures. Much of that information will be made public when Mitchell files his pre-primary campaign finance report with the State Board of Elections on Aug. 14.

The incident was reminiscent of the 1999 mayor's race, when then-City Council President Lawrence A. Bell III spent $4,323 in campaign contributions on his wardrobe during an April trip to Saks Fifth Avenue in New York City. Though legal, the spending stirred controversy and distracted from Bell's message.

At his news conference yesterday, Mitchell repeatedly attempted to steer the discussion back to the issues that have defined his candidacy - crime and education. At least one observer said the blow-up has the effect of distracting the campaign, forcing Mitchell to address campaign finances rather than the city's issues.

"A situation such as this freezes a campaign at a time when they need time," said Richard E. Vatz, a professor of political rhetoric at Towson University, noting that the Sept. 11 Democratic primary is less than six weeks away. "It's not fatal, but it's not good news."

Mitchell said he believed his father did not purposefully mean to undermine the campaign, but the candidate declined to directly answer many questions during yesterday's news conference. Mitchell would not say where his father is, whether he is having money problems or exactly why he thought the spending was appropriate.

"I'm not going to get into the private discussions I had with my dad," Mitchell said when asked if his father thought the hotel stay was a valid campaign expense.

"My dad is a very good man. My dad is a decent man. My dad has been a role model for me and my sisters. ... This is obviously a very difficult time for me, my mother and my family, but this campaign moves on," said Mitchell, who suggested that he is still talking with his father on a regular basis.

As treasurer, Mitchell's father oversaw receipts and spending for the campaign. State officials said Mitchell has used his father as his official treasurer since 1995, the first year Mitchell ran for City Council. After the elder Mitchell's resignation, the campaign hired a Washington-based CPA, William D. Mulholland, as the official treasurer.

Mitchell is running to unseat Mayor Sheila Dixon in next month's Democratic primary.

Mitchell has made his family a central theme of his campaign. In advertisements, Mitchell has often mentioned his grandfather, Clarence M. Mitchell Jr., a leading figure in the civil rights movement. His great-uncle, Parren J. Mitchell, a pioneering African-American member of the U.S. House of Representatives from Maryland, died in May.

His uncle, Clarence M. Mitchell III, is a former state senator who served time in federal prison for accepting money to block a congressional investigation of a New York defense contractor. His cousin, Clarence M. Mitchell IV, lost re-election to the state Senate in 2002 after receiving a sharp rebuke from the General Assembly's ethics committee.

"I come from a family that I'm very proud of. It's a name that I will continue to be proud of," Mitchell said when asked about past family scandals. "The history of our family is so important to not just the state but also to the country. Those things will not overshadow all the great works that my family has done and also all the great works that my dad has done."

john.fritze@baltsun.com

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