As a businessman who has built a half-dozen Baltimore companies, Robert M. Campbell prides himself on being able to help those in need.
So when then-state Del. Clarence M. Mitchell IV sought a $10,000 personal loan in 1997, Campbell agreed to co-sign.
Five years later, Mitchell has failed to make a single payment and Campbell fears he'll be stuck with the lawmaker's debt, currently more than $18,000.
Mitchell, now a state senator, is saddled with tens of thousands of dollars in unpaid bills. A portion of his $31,509 state salary is being garnisheed for payments.
"I've tried to get in touch with him about this," said Campbell, who, with Mitchell, is the subject of a lawsuit seeking to collect the $18,000. "He won't even return my phone calls."
Mitchell would not comment on the loan, saying: "That's really not on my agenda right now. There's a court date in April. Right now, I'm dealing with redistricting" and other legislation before the General Assembly.
Mitchell sought the loan at a time of mounting personal debt. Campbell, a bail bonds company owner and president of the Black Bail Bondsman Association, agreed to back the loan by bus service owner Joe Louis Gladney.
The General Assembly's ethics committee has begun an inquiry into the deal. Though Mitchell sought the money through friends in the bail bonds industry, he did not disclose the loan even as he sponsored and voted on bills affecting the industry - an apparent violation of state ethics law.
In addition, state lawmakers regularly consider bus safety legislation that would affect Gladney, who provided the money for the loan.
Mitchell appeared before the ethics committee in a closed-door session yesterday. It is unclear whether the panel will initiate a full investigation.
Campbell says he's been getting an earful about getting tangled up in Annapolis' latest controversy.
"My mother read the newspaper articles about Mitchell and said: 'You shouldn't be getting involved with those people,'" he said. "I signed for [the loan]. I have to be a man. I pay my bills."
A bespectacled man who speaks proudly of his successes, Campbell, 63, runs businesses on three of the four corners at North Fulton Avenue and Lanvale Street in West Baltimore. He owns a laundromat, a beauty salon and a bail bonds business in the Highland Park neighborhood.
He also runs a towing service and a housing business, and leases a grocery store he once operated.
Campbell says he built it all with money he made working at least two jobs, including 25 years as a city sanitation worker during the day and as an a-rab selling fruits and vegetables in the evening.
"I had 10 different teams of horses," he said.
He traded his horses for dump trucks and operated a trash-hauling business until larger companies came in and took control of the Baltimore market.
His success has won him respect in the neighborhood and in political circles, where he has worked on the campaigns of such Maryland political figures as former Rep. Parren J. Mitchell, the state senator's great-uncle.
"He's a sanitation worker who became an entrepreneur and community leader," said Glen Middleton, president of Local 44 of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, which picked Campbell to sit for six years on its board of directors. "He does a lot of things as far as scholarships. He's done a lot for politicians."
But perhaps nothing as controversial as co-signing a loan for a state lawmaker.
Campbell says his relationship with Clarence M. Mitchell IV grew largely out of their involvement in the Black Bail Bondsman Association. Campbell has been president since the organization's inception nearly a decade ago; Mitchell was a member when he ran a family bail bonds business until late 1997.
The association was formed, in part, because of growing competition with large, predominantly white companies that were taking away the smaller bondsmen's business, Campbell said.
He said some large companies were taking advantage of a state law that allows defendants to pay bondsmen in installments. A defendant must pay 10 percent to a bondsman on bail set by a court. For example, a defendant with a $10,000 bail must pay $1,000 to the bondsman, who gives a promissory note to the court.
Some large companies, Campbell said, charge defendants less than the required 10 percent and conceal the fact by saying the person is paying in installments - but the final installments are never paid.
Legislation and a loan
In 1997, the Black Bail Bondsman Association asked state lawmakers, including Mitchell, to introduce legislation that would create a bail bond commissioner in Baltimore, Campbell and others say. The commissioner was to be responsible for ensuring that bonds are paid in full, preventing any company from undercutting the market, and helping small bondsmen compete.
Then-Delegate Mitchell and former Sen. Larry Young sponsored the measure.
"The Black Bail Bondsman Association asked for that bill," said Mitchell's lawyer, Arthur M. Frank.
During the 1997 Assembly session, Mitchell called John Griffin, the association's vice president, seeking a $10,000 loan, Griffin says. The phone call led to a meeting at an East Baltimore restaurant, where Gladney agreed to lend the money and Campbell agreed to co-sign, according to the three businessmen. With interest, the money due on the loan now totals $18,610.
Meanwhile, the Senate version of the legislation to create a bail bonds commissioner was rejected in committee, which ensured its defeat in the House. Mitchell later withdrew his bill, saying the issue should be studied over the summer, Campbell said.
Campbell said he did not agree to co-sign the loan because of Mitchell's support for the legislation.
"I would not do that for no bill," he said.
But he said he was upset that Mitchell decided to withdraw the legislation.
"You know what he did?" Campbell said. "He 'summer studied' it. You know what that means in Annapolis when they 'summer study' it? That means it's dead."
The failure of the Senate legislation came amid vigorous opposition by large bail bond companies.
"I killed that bill," said Ira C. Cooke, a lobbyist for Lexington National Insurance Corp., a surety company and key player among the large bail bond companies.
Cooke said the legislation would have been bad for all bondsmen because of harsh regulations in parts of the bill.
"It may ultimately have hurt" smaller companies, he said.
Similar legislation has been introduced several times since 1997, without success. Mitchell voted against a similar measure in the Judicial Proceedings Committee two years ago, the last time it was introduced in the Senate.
In the end, it appears that Campbell may suffer losses on two counts - the legislation he seeks and the senator's $18,610 debt that he might have to repay.
"I'll have to repay it," Campbell said, "unless Gladney forgives the debt."