BALTIMORE, NOV. 6 -- Maryland politicians Clarence M. Mitchell III and Michael B. Mitchell were convicted tonight of accepting $50,000 to stop a congressional probe of the scandal-tainted Wedtech Corp. but were acquitted of a broader charge of conspiracy.
The split verdict created momentary turmoil as attorneys and supporters of the brothers told reporters that the federal jury's verdicts were "inconsistent" and "confused," and they vowed to appeal the case to the Supreme Court if necessary.
Prosecutors countered that tonight's verdicts were logical and reached after 11 1/2 hours of careful deliberation.
An initial shout of joy by Mitchell supporters at the conspiracy acquittal was quickly muted when jury foreman Leon King announced the conviction on the narrower charge of simply accepting $50,000 to "corruptly endeavor" to stop the probe on their own. State Sen. Michael Mitchell additionally was convicted of two counts of wire fraud and Clarence Mitchell was convicted of one count; each was acquitted of another wire fraud count.
Judge Norman P. Ramsey, who presided over the 10-day trial, set a tentative sentencing date for the Mitchells of Dec. 29. Clarence Mitchell could be sentenced to a maximum of 10 years in prison and Michael Mitchell 15 years. Each could be fined hundreds of thousands of dollars. All of the charges are felonies.
Juror Elizabeth Delacruz of Bethesda said the case was complex and "exhausting. We had to go over and over the documents. It was so hard to interpret what the law says. So many people's lives were affected by this."
On the courthouse steps, the Mitchells, both Democrats, again asserted their innocence tonight and renewed the assertion that their prosecution stemmed from a long-brewing Reagan administration attempt to discredit black leaders in the country.
U.S. Attorney General Edwin Meese III "won round one," shouted Michael Mitchell, "but we're going to go the distance" and reverse the convictions on appeal.
Federal prosecutors "bamboozled the jurors" into the split verdict, said Clarence Mitchell, 47, a former state senator and civil rights activist. "If you're not guilty of conspiracy," he said, "you can't be guilty of acts flowing from it."
Maryland U.S. Attorney Breckinridge L. Willcox said there was no racial motivation in prosecuting the Mitchells, calling the pair's claims a "cheap shot."
"We take corrupt politicians where we can find them," said Assistant U.S. Attorney Gary P. Jordan, who with Assistant U.S. Attorney Max H. Lauten prosecuted the Mitchells.
Michael Mitchell, 42, is the third sitting Maryland state senator to be convicted in federal court in recent years.
Tommie Broadwater Jr., a former Prince George's County senator, was convicted in 1983 of laundering illicitly obtained food stamps through a supermarket he owned. He served four months and paid $38,000 in fines. Former Anne Arundel County senator Jerome F. Connell Sr. was convicted in 1985 of federal income tax invasion and served nine months in prison.
Under the Maryland Constitution, Michael Mitchell will be automatically suspended from the Senate without pay upon sentencing. If his conviction is upheld on appeal, he will be expelled.
In tonight's verdicts, the Mitchells were acquitted of conspiring with Wedtech officers to block an investigation in 1984 and 1985 by the House Small Business Committee, then headed by Rep. Parren J. Mitchell, an uncle of the Mitchell brothers who has since retired from Congress.
The committee was looking into allegations that the Hispanic-controlled New York firm had received preferential treatment, including help from the White House, in obtaining millions of dollars in no-bid military contracts set aside for minority firms.
In acquitting the Mitchells on the broad conspiracy charge, the jury apparently rejected the prosecution's theory that the brothers schemed with various Wedtech officers to block the investigation. "The Mitchells were dancing to their own drum," said prosecutor Willcox.
But defense attorneys contended that because the alleged attempts to stop the investigation resulted from a meeting of the Mitchells and Wedtech officers in October 1984 at which the conspiracy theoretically was hatched, including an agreement to pay the Mitchells $50,000, all other counts in the case must fall if the jury acquits on the conspiracy count.
Prosecutors and defense attorneys agreed that Parren Mitchell was never approached by his nephews. Rather, the dispute revolved around the threshold question of whether the Mitchell brothers led Wedtech to believe that they intended to "get" to their uncle by corruptly exploiting their family relationship to him.
Several Wedtech officers and New York public officials have been convicted of bribery, larceny and related influence peddling charges in New York. In addition, other officials and political operatives have been indicted or are under investigation.
Former White House adviser-turned-lobbyist Lyn Nofziger is awaiting trial on charges of violating federal ethics laws and lobbying illegally for several clients, including Wedtech. Meese, who once hired a Wedtech consultant to handle his investments, is under investigation in Washington by independent counsel James C. McCay for allegedly intervening on Wedtech's behalf in 1982 when he was counselor to the president.
The Mitchells are members of the most prominent black political family in the state, often referred to as Maryland's "black Kennedys." Their father, the late Clarence Mitchell Jr., was for many years the NAACP lobbyist on Capitol Hill and was nicknamed "the 101st senator." His wife, Juanita Jackson Mitchell, was the first black woman to graduate from the University of Maryland Law School.
Clarence Mitchell III served 24 years in the state legislature -- he was the longest-serving black politician in the state.Staff writers Lisa Leff and Jeffrey Yorke contributed to this report.