This article originally appeared in The Baltimore Sun on August 7, 2007.
Surfacing for the first time in a campaign finance imbroglio that has surrounded his son’s mayoral candidacy, Dr. Keiffer J. Mitchell Sr. said through attorneys yesterday that the $14,000 he spent on a hotel was an appropriate campaign expense because the room was used for fundraising.
The bevy of prominent city attorneys who sat alongside the elder Mitchell at a news conference yesterday also said it was appropriate for him to write $7,220 in campaign checks out to cash, a contention disputed by the director of the State Board of Elections’ division of campaign finance.
Mitchell, a well-known doctor of internal medicine and gastroenterologist, resigned Thursday as treasurer of City Councilman Keiffer J. Mitchell Jr.’s mayoral campaign after the candidate’s aides discovered $40,000 in expenditures they say are questionable. Wearing a dark suit and burgundy tie, Dr. Mitchell remained silent during the 20-minute news conference.
“We’re here today to restore the reputation of a great man who has found himself in a position of grave misunderstanding,” said William H. “Billy” Murphy Jr., who said he was Dr. Mitchell’s lead counsel. “The purpose of this press conference today is to right a serious wrong so that his integrity can be restored. … He has misused no funds. He has committed no legal wrong.”
The elder Mitchell’s supporters said the decision to tell his side of the story was not politically motivated, but his news conference had the effect of diverting attention from his son’s campaign for another day as the councilman attempted to shift the focus back to the issues.
The candidate held a news conference near police headquarters yesterday and called on the city to use more state troopers to quell violence in Baltimore. Through a spokeswoman, he declined to comment on his father’s news conference – which took place minutes after his own.
“I love my father very much and do not believe he would purposely hurt me or my campaign,” said a statement the Mitchell campaign e-mailed to reporters. “We have taken the steps necessary to move my campaign forward.”
The councilman is seeking to unseat Mayor Sheila Dixon in the Sept. 11 Democratic primary. Del. Jill P. Carter, schools administrator Andrey Bundley, and Circuit Court Clerk Frank M. Conaway are also among the eight Democratic candidates.
“This is not about the mayor’s race. This about Dr. Keiffer Mitchell,” Murphy said. “This has little or nothing to do with his campaign in terms of its merits or Sheila Dixon’s campaign in terms of its merits. This is about Dr. Mitchell.”
According to a list of expenses provided by the campaign, the elder Mitchell spent $14,151 to pay for a hotel stay at the Burkshire Marriott in Towson while his wife was recovering from knee surgery so that she could avoid stairs in their home. Murphy said that Councilman Mitchell’s parents used the room for “extensive” campaign business during that time.
The councilman’s campaign said last week that Dr. Mitchell had repaid the money in question.
State election law prohibits the spending of campaign money – which is derived mainly from corporate and individual contributions – on personal expenses unless the costs benefit the candidate. According to state law, the expenditure must “promote or assist in the promotion of the success or defeat of a candidate.”
But the line can be blurry. In the 1999 mayor’s race, then-City Council President Lawrence A. Bell III spent $4,323 in campaign contributions on his wardrobe during a trip to Saks Fifth Avenue in New York City – an expenditure that stirred controversy but that was ultimately considered legal because the new suits, it was argued, helped the candidate’s image.
State elections officials said they apply a “but-for” test to such expenditures. If the expense would not have been made “but for the candidacy,” then it is generally allowed. If the campaign can show a connection between the expense and the campaign – such as, in this case, that fundraising calls were being made from a hotel room – there is no issue.
But an additional $19,000 in campaign funds are largely unaccounted for, ending up with individuals “unknown to the campaign,” in checks made out to cash, or in checks that were cashed by unknown people, Mitchell campaign officials have said. Asked about the $7,220 in checks made out to cash, Murphy said: “That’s perfectly proper under campaign finance law because many expenditures have been traditionally and lawfully done in cash.”
Jared DeMarinis, director of the State Board of Elections’ Candidacy and Campaign Finance Division, disagreed with that assessment.
“Campaign finance entities may not directly or indirectly make any expenditure except by a check. That would be an indirect method of making an expenditure [by cash],” DeMarinis said. “The expenditure itself was a cash transaction.”
Larry Gibson, another influential lawyer who participated in Dr. Mitchell’s news conference, said the campaign finance report that Councilman Mitchell must file by state law with the State Board of Elections on Aug. 14 will show that the cash expenditures were made out to his father. Gibson then suggested that the money eventually wound up in someone else’s hands.
“These disbursements will be indicated to Dr. Keiffer Mitchell,” Gibson said. “That the initial disbursement from the account was to him and that’s how it will be reflected in the report. Now, it is quite common to then have subsequent disbursements, I guess, as a general contractor to a subcontractor or to other persons who give money who then disburse money in smaller amounts.”
In almost all cases, state law requires a campaign finance report to show who ultimately received the money, DeMarinis said. As treasurer, Dr. Mitchell was legally responsible for all campaign receipts and expenditures.
The elder Mitchell sat quietly for the entire news conference yesterday, declining to speak even when a reporter attempted to confirm his age. Asked last week, the candidate said his father was 65. Yesterday, Murphy said Dr. Mitchell is 66.
Murphy said the team of attorneys with the elder Mitchell had no dispute with candidate Mitchell – who disclosed the spending last week – but with news media coverage of the story. Asked if Dr. Mitchell had retained the lawyers because he is considering a lawsuit, Murphy said he would not discuss future strategy.
“The coverage makes it look like he did something illegal. … From this moment on he is being advised by counsel because the … innuendoes in the coverage were that he did something wrong,” Murphy said. “He did nothing wrong.”