In the latest twist to a bizarre family feud over campaign spending, Dr. Keiffer J. Mitchell Sr. ordered his son's mayoral campaign yesterday to vacate his Bolton Hill office building, charging that the younger Mitchell owes him $13,500 in back rent and has ignored repeated requests for payment.
But a spokesman for the campaign of Baltimore City Councilman and mayoral candidate Keiffer J. Mitchell Jr. responded that Dr. Mitchell is the one who still owes money to the campaign after questionable spending.
The campaign refused to leave the second-floor office space yesterday, despite the elder Mitchell's threats in a letter to change the office locks.
Father and son began battling over questions involving campaign funds last month, and this latest incident comes a week before the Sept. 11 Democratic primary.
A poll conducted for The Sun and released this past weekend shows Mitchell trailing interim Mayor Sheila Dixon, 46 percent to 19 percent. But the same poll of Democratic primary voters suggests that the dispute between Mitchell and his father has had relatively little effect on voter support -- only 16 percent said that it made them less likely to vote for Mitchell.
"The lawyers will deal with it. We believe there is still money owed to the campaign, and we feel we should not have to pay out any money," said Jayson Williams, Mitchell's campaign manager. "This is more about the publicity of Dr. Mitchell's attorney than the campaign."
Williams said the office in the 1200 block of Druid Hill Ave. is primarily used for storage, and for the past three weeks the campaign's York Road office has been its primary staging area. The campaign intends to keep both offices open, he said.
Meanwhile, Dr. Mitchell said in his sharply worded letter to Williams that forcing the closure of the office was "unfortunately required."
He said he has volunteered services to the campaign, including the donation of office space, and continuing to do so would force him to exceed the state's $4,000 in-kind contribution limit.
"The campaign's attitudes and actions regarding its obligations to me have been the most disturbing," Dr. Mitchell said in the letter.
Last month, Dr. Mitchell resigned as his son's campaign treasurer after aides to the candidate discovered $40,000 in expenditures they say are questionable. After reviewing campaign finance reports a few weeks later, the younger Mitchell said that figure was more than $56,000.
A team of prominent Baltimore attorneys for Dr. Mitchell has defended the campaign expenses, including more than $20,000 spent on a Towson hotel room they say was used for campaign operations while Mitchell's mother, Nannette, was recovering from knee surgery.
"Particularly disturbing has been your amnesia about the extensive fundraising operations by Nannette Mitchell and other campaign employees at the Burkshire Marriott Conference Center," Dr. Mitchell states in the two-page letter.
Larry Gibson, one of Dr. Mitchell's attorneys, said yesterday that it was appropriate for Dr. Mitchell to write $9,500 in checks made out to cash to cover such expenses as utilities and maintenance for the Bolton Hill office.
Gibson said the father and son agreed to a flat fee for the office space. But once the financial disagreement erupted, the agreement was called into question. Gibson said his client reimbursed the campaign for checks made out to cash, so now he is owed for the rent.
In the letter, the doctor of internal medicine and gastroenterologist accuses the campaign of inventing the controversy "for misguided public image objectives."
Gibson said campaign managers refused to sit down with the elder Mitchell to discuss the discrepancies and instead moved to tarnish his client's reputation.
"Rather than have the new treasurer and Dr. Mitchell meet, they were in media spin-doctor mode," said Gibson in an interview yesterday. "They created an image of strong and resolute and independent Mitchell. And that seemed to be the priority. It was a gross injustice to Dr. and Mrs. Mitchell, and their reputation was damaged."
Williams said Mitchell did not intend to cause his father harm but thought it was important to handle the disagreement swiftly.
"Councilman Mitchell wanted to bring these things to light, because we are dealing with people who had invested in the campaign to support him," he said. "He wanted to work this out quickly."
In a passage of the letter, Dr. Mitchell voices support for his son:
"His mother and I have supported Keiffer throughout his life and political career. He will never lose our love and support. But I cannot allow his political committee to break the law by receiving from me excessive contributions."
Meanwhile, the elder Mitchell's attorneys have blamed the candidate's campaign staff, noting that the candidate recently had dinner with his father.
The fracas has revealed a rocky father-son relationship and created an embarrassing distraction for a campaign hoping to come from behind in the polls.
Williams said the campaign is focusing on next week's election rather than the father-son disagreement.
"This is a personal matter between father and son; I am focused on running the campaign," he said. "Councilman Mitchell will continue to run on his long record of public service."