Inquiries may undercut Mitchell's House leadership


ANNAPOLIS -- Thirty-five new legislators, full of idealism and eagerness, assembled at an orientation session last week to hear words of encouragement from their new leader, House Speaker R. Clayton Mitchell Jr. -- a man now under investigation by state and federal authorities.

Only the day before, allegations of influence-peddling against Mr. Mitchell had been splashed across the front page of the Washington Post.

The occasionally cavalier Eastern Shore Democrat says he was saved some embarrassment by several new freshmen who gave him informal votes of confidence.

"They came up to me and said they supported me," he said. Still, he conceded, the concerns are "in the back of your mind."

Though few specifics of the investigations have been disclosed, federal authorities and the Maryland special prosecutor, Stephen Montanarelli, apparently have been examining a real estate deal in which Mr. Mitchell earned a $100,000 broker's fee. Questions about that deal arose because the land was purchased by Mark Vogel at a time when legislation before the General Assembly benefited the real estate developer and racetrack owner.

Mr. Vogel, whose real estate empire has fallen on hard times, pleaded guilty last month to a narcotics possession charge in Virginia, and he is said to figure in an ongoing federal probe. Recently, he relinquished day-to-day control of his harness tracks in Maryland, which are for sale.

Speaker Mitchell vigorously denies any impropriety in his association with Mr. Vogel, but the suggestion of possible wrongdoing in the land transaction was there for the new delegates to consider before they had even been sworn in.

Veteran legislators say they doubt Mr. Mitchell is in serious trouble, but the inquiries may already have hurt him as a leader of the House.

Several issues the speaker would have pushed in other years will be set aside for this year, legislative sources say.

Any number of issues, large and small, could be affected by the speaker's position as the apparent target of an investigation. Anything that might seem to have an impact on real estate -- and thus on the speaker's real estate interests -- might have to be set aside until the investigations are complete.

With a presumption of innocence still dominant, speculation abounds about the powers perhaps engaged in an attempt to topple the speaker, at least to diminish his power.

Some of Mr. Mitchell's constituents wondered last week if Gov. William Donald Schaefer was after the speaker -- because a majority of Eastern Shore voters went against the governor in the recent election.

More specifically, Mr. Mitchell is known to oppose tax increases suggested by R. Robert Linowes and his study commission. Mr. Schaefer is known to favor many, if not all, of the Linowes proposals. Is the pressure designed to neutralize the speaker's opposition? Will similar pressure arise around other issues?

The speaker denies it, but associates say these questions and speculations leave him preoccupied, somewhat unfocused and "paranoid." He has suggested to friends that members or would-be members of his leadership group -- committee chairmen, committee vice chairmen or Democratic Party floor leaders -- are out to get him. Without being specific, he has said he thinks the "jealousy" of people who feel slighted by him have led to leaked stories about the investigation.

For a time, sources say, he thought Delegate Charles J. Ryan, D-Prince George's, chairman of the Appropriations Committee and a close legislative friend, was preparing to take over as speaker if he was indicted. Friends say that this particular suspicion has begun to subside.

"I told him," one of his friends said, " 'Clayton, if you don't stop looking over your shoulder, you're going to run into something.' "

The looking may not stop altogether until the special prosecutor exonerates him or brings charges.

Legislators are likely be supportive of a powerful leader -- someone whose good will can profoundly help or hurt a career in the Assembly -- and that is the case now with Mr. Mitchell.

Delegate Robert J. DiPietro, D-Prince George's -- who was defeated in the recent election and will not return to the Assembly -- assumes that the prosecutor has found nothing.

"If there were something terribly wrong, it would have popped up by now," he said. No one can know, though, because the prosecutor has said nothing. He has not even interviewed Mr. Mitchell.

"It looks like a witch hunt," says Delegate John J. Bishop, R-Baltimore County. Mr. Bishop observes that he has disagreed with Mr. Mitchell on a range of issues, but he thinks a suggestion of unethical association in the land deal involving Mr. Vogel is far-fetched.

What Mr. Mitchell fears most was expressed by a Baltimor legislator who spoke only on the condition that he not be named. This legislator said he expects the prosecutor to find something substantive.

"When any person is under serious criminal investigation by two different agencies, there's trouble," the legislator said. "There's substantive trouble and other types of trouble," he said. Suspicion generates a loss of authority, for example.

"The speaker constantly has to make decisions regarding all kinds of issues," the legislator said. "When you have him under criminal investigation, the House can't help but begin to question everything he does."

Echoing the speaker's own worries, the legislator said that everything Mr. Mitchell does will be scrutinized in a different light now.

As others have done, this legislator compared Mr. Mitchell with his predecessor, Benjamin L. Cardin, now Maryland's 3rd District Democratic congressman.

"Cardin looked for consensus. This speaker looks to be a dictator," he said. For that reason, he thinks, "I haven't heard one syllable of sympathy for him."

"Leadership," he said, "is when people follow you because they believe in you, not when they're afraid of you."

The speaker's difficulties, in other words, are exacerbated by his style, a style that has brought him into conflict with an array of legislators, from campaign finance reformers to members of the Black Caucus.

At the root of such feelings -- as Mr. Mitchell feared -- is unhappiness about the leadership team he assembled recently for this year. The most controversial of his selections is D. Bruce Poole, a second-term delegate from Hagerstown, who will vault over many senior delegates to become the majority leader.

"He's given people ammunition not to be supportive," the legislator said.

Delegate DiPietro of Prince George's County said the speaker's problem lies, to some extent, in the nature of the citizen legislature. If representatives are also in business, they are likely to find themselves occasionally in a compromised position -- where a vote affects or appears to affect their livelihood. When that happens, they have to declare the conflict openly.

In the Vogel matter, Mr. Mitchell has told associates he did not report the land deal because the state was not directly involved. That, his friends suggest, may not have been a good decision.

But it is possible to engage in business transactions that have an unforeseeable connection with the state or with the General Assembly, direct or indirect.

"It's not the real conflicts that kill you. It's the perception," Mr. DiPietro said. "If you have a real conflict, it will show up like Grant took Richmond. But you can get in a trick bag without even knowing it. When that happens, you have to say, 'Hey, I'm an honest guy.' "

"You hope and you genuflect," he said.

The fear in Mr. Mitchell's office is that the investigation will be kept alive until the probe of Mr. Vogel has been completed. If that occurs, the speculation, the paranoia and the restrictions on Mr. Mitchell's activities will continue to affect the business of the House of Delegates.

Mr. Mitchell has occasionally wondered aloud, his aides say, if he should resign -- a question which could become more pressing.

"If anyone thinks I'm going to walk away from this thing," Mr. Mitchell has told others, "they don't know me very well."

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