The General Assembly's ethics committee publicly reprimanded Sen. Clarence M. Mitchell IV yesterday for violating state ethics law by quietly accepting a $10,000 loan arranged by three Baltimore businessmen with issues before the legislature.
The sanction is the harshest action taken against a Maryland legislator since 1998, when the state Senate expelled Larry Young after an ethics committee investigation. No other legislator has been publicly chastened by the committee in more than 20 years, officials said.
In a three-page rebuke, the Joint Committee on Legislative Ethics criticized Mitchell for accepting the loan from a bus company owner in 1997, when he was a member of the House of Delegates. Two city bail bondsmen arranged the loan, and one of them co-signed the note.
Although Mitchell sponsored and voted on legislation affecting the bail bond and bus service industries, he did not disclose the loan agreement until this month - a violation of state ethics law.
Mitchell, a Baltimore Democrat, reported the loan to the ethics committee on the eve of an article in The Sun describing the deal.
The senator has made no payments on the debt, which, with interest, is more than $18,000. The ethics committee found that his failure to repay the loan "created the appearance of the loan being a de facto gift."
"This committee finds that by continuing to violate the explicit requirements of the Ethics Law for nearly five years, until the matter was brought to light by the news media, you have brought dishonor upon yourself and upon the institution of the Maryland General Assembly," the panel wrote.
A reporter who went to Mitchell's office yesterday seeking comment was told by an aide that the senator was referring all questions to his attorney.
Mitchell's lawyer, Arthur M. Frank, downplayed the public sanction, saying the committee openly chastened the senator because of pressure from the media.
"Senator Mitchell has no objection to the public knowing" about the loan, Frank said.
Frank called the failure to disclose the loan earlier "an oversight," and said, "He's glad there's closure to the issue so that he can get on with his legislative agenda."
In issuing the reprimand, the ethics committee left open the possibility of further disciplinary action. "The committee has not waived its authority to take further action if additional relevant information is made known to us and such further action is warranted," the panel wrote.
The Ethics Commission, a state agency that also has authority to discipline lawmakers, is expected to review the case against Mitchell. Officials there declined comment, citing confidentiality laws.
The Assembly's ethics committee generally issues confidential sanctions against lawmakers. Sen. Michael J. Collins, co-chairman of the committee, said the panel believed that Mitchell's actions warranted a public rebuke.
"You're five years late in disclosing, and clearly in those five years the conflict of interest was presumed," Collins said.
He said the committee decided to act quickly to avoid having the Assembly get "bogged down" with a disciplinary case late in the 90-day session. He called the public reprimand "a very serious, unprecedented action."
'Slap on the wrist'
The head of a nonprofit government watchdog group said the reprimand does not go far enough.
"If Senator Mitchell's failure to disclose the loan doesn't warrant further action, I don't know what does," said James Browning, executive director of Common Cause/Maryland.
"If this letter and slap on the wrist is all that they do, that's sending the wrong message," Browning said. "The message is that legislators can do this and live to fight another day."
Mitchell, now 39, sought the $10,000 loan from Baltimore bail bondsman John Griffin during the 1997 General Assembly session, when Mitchell was a delegate.
Griffin helped arrange the loan during a meeting at an East Baltimore delicatessen with Mitchell, bail bondsman Robert M. Campbell and bus company owner Joe Louis Gladney Sr., the three men have said.
Gladney owns Gladney Transportation Inc., which provides bus service for city schoolchildren. He agreed to provide the money for the loan, and Campbell agreed to co-sign the deal. Gladney filed suit last July against Mitchell and Campbell seeking the $10,000, plus $8,610 in interest. The case is set to be heard in Baltimore District Court in April.
Despite the loan agreement, Mitchell continued to sponsor and vote on legislation affecting the bail and bus service industries. Among the bail bills Mitchell sponsored was a measure requested by Campbell and Griffin, both officers of the Black Bail Bondsman Association. The bill was never passed.
Campbell recently said he fears he will have to repay Mitchell's loan himself because the senator is steeped in debt.
It was unclear yesterday if the loan would be the subject of investigation by other agencies, such as the State Prosecutor's office or the U.S. Attorney. Officials from those agencies were said to be waiting for the ethics committee to reach its findings before deciding whether to investigate.
Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller expressed regret yesterday about Mitchell's conduct. "I'm sorry that Senator Mitchell's inactions have brought us to this point," Miller said. "No one likes to see letters such as this."
The formal reprimand was issued the same day that Mitchell served Gov. Parris N. Glendening's office with a federal lawsuit filed by the senator, which charges that the governor's new legislative redistricting plan discriminates against minority voters. Under the plan, Mitchell's district has been combined with that of another Baltimore Democrat, Sen. George W. Della Jr. The new district is almost evenly split racially.
Yesterday's action by the ethics committee represented a rare public sanction against a state lawmaker. The Senate's vote against Young was the first expulsion of a Maryland lawmaker in 200 years.
Precedent in 1981
Apart from that, officials said the last time the ethics committee publicly chastened a lawmaker was in 1981, when the panel recommended that the House of Delegates show its "disapproval" of Del. Francis J. Santangelo, a Prince George's County Democrat.
The committee cited Santangelo for failing to report that he held an interest in firms that were winning state contracts to stage "big band" shows in a state-owned convention center. The House approved the sanction, 124 to 8.
Mitchell was reprimanded once before in connection with required public disclosures. The Ethics Commission reprimanded him a year ago for failing to submit required annual financial disclosure forms in a timely manner. In the February 2001 sanction, the commission fined him $350.
Browning, of Common Cause, said the legislature needs to tighten up what he sees as a "laxity of disclosure laws." He said disclosures should be filed electronically, and the state should eliminate the requirement that legislators be notified any time someone reviews their disclosure files. "That has a chilling effect," he said.
Sun staff writer Howard Libit contributed to this article.