Senator draws ire with vote; Mitchell is criticized for court bill switch


From the windows of state Sen. Clarence M. Mitchell IV's old office on Druid Hill Avenue, printed signs carry two distinct promises.

A campaign poster declares that a vote for Mitchell is a vote "for a better Baltimore." In larger letters across the tall glass panes, another sign announces: "Druid Bail Bonds: Home in a Hurry."

The signs advertise the two worlds of Clarence Mitchell, a licensed bail bondsman who represents the third generation of one of Baltimore's political dynasties. This week, when the senator switched sides and voted against a bill aimed at unclogging Baltimore's courts -- legislation that could have cost bail bondsmen considerable profits -- those two worlds collided, his critics argue.

"It was total betrayal and a decision that should shame all of us," said M. Cristina Gutierrez, a Baltimore defense attorney.

Gutierrez was one of a half-dozen lawyers who came to Annapolis yesterday to protest the Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee's decision and to contend that Mitchell voted for the interests of the bail-bond business and not those of poor people in his district.

Since casting a key committee vote in the 6-5 defeat of the bill Tuesday, Mitchell has repeatedly denied that claim, noting that he has been out of the bail-bond business for nearly two years. He pointed out that even if he had abstained, the measure would still have died in the committee because it lacked a majority.

What has baffled people is that Mitchell had said for weeks he would support the bill, which would have required public defenders to represent indigent clients at bail-review hearings.

A wide array of judges, prosecutors, police and defense lawyers had pushed for the bill as a major component in the effort to solve Baltimore's court crisis. It died after lobbyists for the bail-bond business waged a quiet campaign to defeat it.

The lobbyists have acknowledged that the industry feared losing business because defendants with lawyers are much more likely to be released on their own recognizance.

Mitchell's decision surprised and disappointed his fellow city legislators, but he has forcefully defended it. In interviews and a written statement this week, he said his vote was prudent, proper and "completely aboveboard."

That has placed him at the center of controversy during his first months in the Senate. Mitchell, who bears the name of his famous grandfather, the NAACP lobbyist behind many of the nation's civil rights laws, served one term in the House of Delegates. Last fall, he won the Senate seat vacated by ousted Sen. Larry Young and previously held by Mitchell's father and uncle.

Taking a short break before a hearing Thursday, the senator explained his actions.

"I'll tell you what I've told everyone else," Mitchell said. "I wasn't going to support something when it was not clear to me that this was the way to approach the problems in the city's courts. It's really that simple."

Other city legislators said they remain mystified.

"I don't understand it," said Sen. Nathaniel J. McFadden, who chairs Baltimore's Senate delegation and selected Mitchell to track legislation on the court crisis. "What can I say? It was a part of our courts package. We all liked the bill."

"I have no idea why he did it," said Sen. Ralph M. Hughes, a Baltimore Democrat who cast one of five votes for the bill in the committee. "It wasn't expected."

Two days before the vote, Mitchell appeared to back the measure, visiting the House floor to help persuade delegates to vote for the bill in their chamber.

Del. Emmett C. Burns Jr. said Mitchell "told me it was a good bill and asked me to support it." Asked what he thought happened to turn Mitchell's vote, Burns grinned and said, "What happened? Politics happened."

Some legislators say Mitchell has explained that his vote was a trade, that he used a purely political maneuver to gain support for another bill he favored more, one that would bring Baltimore a civilian police review board.

"If it's true, it's disappointing," said Del. Kenneth C. Montague Jr., also a Baltimore Democrat.

Mitchell, 36, would neither confirm nor deny the claim.

Others, outside the legislature, believe Mitchell's vote reflected his close ties to the bail-bond business and its chief lobbyist, Ira C. Cooke.

Licensed since 1990

Mitchell has held a license to work as a bail bondsman since 1990, and he renewed it in June 1997. During that period he oversaw several family bond and insurance companies. Mitchell said this week that he no longer does any work outside of his Senate job.

His first incorporated business, Druid Bail Bonds, was formed with Cooke's help. Cooke, who is listed as the resident agent on the firm's 1994 corporate filing, is a lobbyist for numerous clients in Annapolis, including the Maryland Bail Bond Association.

Cooke said he has known members of the Mitchell family for years, but he and Mitchell deny doing business together, beyond Cooke's help in filing the corporate papers for Druid Bail Bonds.

"That was the only contact I have ever had with the Mitchells and their bail business," Cooke said.

'Politically childlike'

Mitchell said any claim that he should have refrained from voting is "childlike."

"Most politically childlike is the conclusion that my vote was tainted because I am a licensed bail bondsman," he said in a written statement. "If it was assumed there was a conflict of interest and I had abstained, the bill would have still died because a 5-5 vote does not prevail."

Critics noted that Mitchell's switch sealed the fate of the bill. Leading the outcry yesterday was Doug Colbert, a University of Maryland Law School professor and a prime backer of the proposal.

He called Mitchell's switch a breakdown in the democratic process.

The bill had broad support from the criminal justice community. No one had turned out at hearings in Annapolis to speak against it. The lobbying against the bill had been done quietly.

"I think my law students have learned something about the political process," Colbert said. "They were shocked to see one of their biggest supporters turn against them, yes. But they were more shocked that there was no debate, no exchange of ideas. That this was a decision made entirely behind closed doors."

Sun staff writer Greg Garland contributed to this article.

Pub Date: 3/27/99

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