Charlotte councilman under investigation owes voters answers

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James “Smuggie” Mitchell is sworn in for the Charlotte City Council at the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Government Center in Charlotte, North Carolina on Tuesday, September 6, 2022.

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Less than two years after stepping down due to a conflict of interest, James “Smuggie” Mitchell has returned to the Charlotte City Council – and he’s facing the same issues that led to his departure.

The North Carolina State Bureau of Investigation confirmed Monday that it is investigating Mitchell’s disputed involvement in RJ Leepera construction company that often contracts with the city on public projects.

This stake is what caused Mitchell to suddenly step down from his role in January 2021. At the time, he owned 25% of the company and had taken on a new role as co-owner and chairman. State Law prohibits members of a city’s board of directors from holding more than 10% of any company that does business with the city.

Mitchell said various media during his campaign that he retains a 25% stake in the company. But RJ Leeper maintained Mitchell no longer did, saying he took control of his ownership share in March after Mitchell defaulted on a $375,000 loan.

You would think that an elected official who resigned due to a blatant conflict of interest would want to clarify whether that conflict of interest still exists, especially when seeking to return to the position from which he resigned. But Mitchell did not provide that clarification, which did little to reassure those who fear he may be breaking the law by returning to office.

Before Mitchell was sworn in earlier this month, City Attorney Patrick Baker said in a memo to council that taking the oath could expose Mitchell to criminal penalties if he actually owned more than 10% of the ‘company.

“This situation is unprecedented in my 26 years of municipal law practice and there is no specific legal guidance other than what I have just provided to you above,” Baker wrote in the memo.

Mitchell, seemingly unfazed, said he was delighted to be sworn in and took the oath anyway. After the ceremony, Mitchell declined questions about his property, simply telling reporters it was a “business matter.”

It’s a confusing situation, and unfortunately with few answers at the moment. For that, the blame seems to lie entirely with Mitchell, who for months failed to provide the transparency demanded by the circumstances.

“I look forward to the SBI investigation and I’m glad they are doing it,” Mitchell says WSOC on Monday. “So let’s pause and wait for the results.”

But Charlotte residents have waited long enough for answers. This investigation was neither inevitable nor necessary. Nothing about the dispute is new — questions about Mitchell’s stake in the company have been around for months.

The SBI investigation – which became public shortly before the council held its first business meeting – cast a shadow over a brand new city council. This is a disservice to the city, which should never have been taken away in this situation. By all accounts, this seems like a “business deal”, and it should have stayed that way. Instead, it turned into an unfortunate distraction.

Above all, it is a disservice to voters. Whatever happens to the investigation, it will have shaken public confidence. Voters are wary of deception, and leaving them in the dark does little to compensate for their waning faith in and disillusionment with the institutions they expect to serve them.

What Mitchell should do now is what he should have done all along: be upfront about the situation. Does he hold more than 10% of the company’s capital or not? And if he does, why does RJ Leeper insist that he doesn’t?

The people of Charlotte deserved these answers long before they voted and especially before Mitchell took office. It is high time he provided them.

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