Parren Mitchell sues Sun, 2 reporters

$251 million lawsuit alleges privacy invasion; paper supports writers

By M. Dion Thompson
Sun Staff

June 8, 2002

Parren J. Mitchell, the former congressman and civil rights leader, filed a $251 million lawsuit against The Sun and two of its reporters yesterday, alleging trespassing and invasion of
privacy when the reporters interviewed him at the Keswick Multi-Care Center in North Baltimore.

Standing outside the Clarence M. Mitchell Jr. Courthouse, named for Parren Mitchell's older brother, the storied civil rights leader and family patriarch, three relatives excoriated the
newspaper, calling a recent series of articles politically motivated and untrue. Those articles have detailed the financial dealings of a family member responsible for Parren Mitchell's

The former congressman, who has suffered several strokes and is described in the lawsuit as being "in a very medically and emotionally fragile position," did not attend the news
conference. His signature -- in weak, barely legible script -- can be seen on the lawsuit.

His attorney, Arthur M. Frank, said the two reporters "crossed the line of professional journalism" when they interviewed Mitchell.

William K. Marimow, editor of The Sun, supported the reporters, calling their work on the articles "excellent journalism."

"First and foremost, our stories were accurate, thorough and fair and dealt with a matter of substantial public interest and importance," he said. "The two reporters, Wally Roche and Ivan
Penn, are excellent journalists who have the highest professional standards, the highest ethical standards, and they are two men of great integrity."

Michael E. Waller, The Sun's publisher and chief executive officer, said, "This suit is utter nonsense."

The lawsuit was part of an all-out offensive by the Mitchells that began with a morning appearance on Larry Young's radio program on WOLB. They also asked State's Attorney Patricia
C. Jessamy to look into the possibility of filing criminal charges based on their allegations of trespassing and breaking and entering. That request was quickly rejected.

By late afternoon, Jessamy's office released a letter to Frank, saying: "It is our opinion that there is no criminal conduct involved. Based on our review, we will not investigate, or bring
criminal charges against any person or persons or corporation contained in your letter."

The lawsuit, which seeks $1 million in compensatory damages and $250 million in punitive damages, interest and court costs, centers around an interview Roche and Penn had with
Mitchell. The two reporters had gone to Keswick to talk to the former congressman about the handling of his assets.

Mitchell's bills, including more than $100,000 owed to Keswick, had not been paid by his nephew, Michael B. Mitchell Sr., who has power of attorney for his uncle. The former
congressman moved into the nursing home three years ago.

The newspaper's investigation showed the elder Mitchell's money had been used to pay expenses related to a Pigtown bar Michael Mitchell helps run and to buy a car.

Michael Mitchell said yesterday that his uncle asked him to buy the car. It was needed, Michael Mitchell said, to take his uncle to the hospital and doctor's offices.

Parren Mitchell also has been hit with state and federal tax liens of $25,532. An April 4, 2001, letter to Mitchell sent in care of his nephew by a GMAC official about the car loan notes that
"the account is seriously past due." The letter also mentions a Dec. 12, 2000, accident involving the car, which was uninsured at the time.

Frank called the newspaper reports "totally false and totally untrue." He said the reporters used "false pretense and deceit" to enter Mitchell's room at the nursing home.

"He was abused," Frank said. "His rights were violated. If these so-called reporters can do this to Congressman Mitchell, they can do this to anyone. Someone has to stop them, and
Congressman Mitchell plans to do that."

Michael Mitchell said the reports in The Sun were "an attempt to sully my uncle's name."

"You say what you want about me, but don't mess with P.J. because he is an icon," said Mitchell. "Come on, give it to me, but don't come after Congressman Mitchell."

The Sun articles have not dealt with the former congressman's reputation, but how his assets have been handled.

Like his older brother, Clarence M. Mitchell Jr., the former congressman blazed a trail in advancing the cause of civil rights. Parren Mitchell was the University of Maryland's first black
graduate student, an honor he earned after suing the school to gain admission.

He was the first African-American from Maryland elected to Congress, serving from 1971 to 1986.

His victory also made him the first African-American since 1898 to win election to Congress from a state below the Mason-Dixon line. His numerous honors include a West Baltimore
business center that bears his name.

His nephew, Michael Mitchell, once had a promising future in city and state politics, having been elected to the Baltimore City Council in 1975 at age 29. By 1980, he was being mentioned
as a possible mayoral candidate. By the end of the decade, his political career was in ruins.

He was sentenced to federal prison in 1987, after being convicted on charges that he tried to obstruct a federal investigation of the Wedtech Corp., a Bronx, N.Y.-based defense
contractor. He also was convicted in state court in 1988 for stealing $77,417 in insurance money from the 3-year-old son of a murder victim -- money he has yet to repay. As part of the
sentence in that case, Mitchell was disbarred.

While Frank and the older Mitchells spoke forcefully during yesterday's news conference, state Sen. Clarence M. Mitchell IV, himself the subject of critical newspaper reports, stepped to
the bank of microphones and cameras to issue a challenge.

"These two punks entered my Uncle Parren's room," he said. "We will not allow these punks to invade our uncle's room, and if we see these punks, we'll deal with them the way Druid Hill
deals with them."

The Mitchells also lodged complaints against Keswick yesterday over their uncle's care, saying he had once been taken to the wrong hospital.

Willene Smith, spokeswoman for Keswick, said, "I cannot comment on that."

Copyright © 2002, The Baltimore Sun