YOU ARE HERE: LAT HomeCollections

Mitchell drawn to thorny issues

The former senator, a sports fan, had a good track record. But he also had a potential conflict: his ties to the Red Sox.

December 15, 2007|Joe Mathews | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — George Mitchell knows athletic frustration.

Growing up in the central Maine town of Waterville, he was the youngest and least athletic of the four Mitchell boys. Either he brought the bats and balls to the baseball field, or he wasn't allowed to play.

Despite such indignities, sports was a huge part of his young life. And it still is.

"I know when he talks about steroids and baseball, that is very personal to him," says Harold C. Pachios, a Maine lawyer who has known Mitchell for more than 45 years.

On Thursday, the personal became public as Mitchell announced the results of a 21-month investigation into the use of performance-enhancing drugs by baseball players. The Mitchell Report -- as the 400-plus-page document quickly became known -- identified more than 80 players who had been associated with such drugs, instantly damaging the reputations of baseball heroes such as Roger Clemens.

To some commentators, Mitchell's stewardship of a controversial high-profile investigation seemed an odd and risky turn for a former Democratic Senate majority leader known for peacemaking work in settings as diverse as Northern Ireland and the Disney boardroom. But those who know him say the baseball problem fit a life and career of many interesting, if short, chapters.

"He is a sports devotee, one of those people who can tell you every statistic you can possibly think of," says Pachios, who visited Mitchell, 74, on a recent Sunday in his New York apartment. There Pachios found him, along with his 10-year-old son, watching a New York Jets football game.

Mitchell, global chairman of the law firm DLA Piper, has spent much of his life hopscotching from project to project, often not staying very long at any one post, firm or place.

There were two years as a Justice Department trial lawyer, three years as an aide to Sen. Edmund Muskie (D-Maine), about a decade in private law practice, two years as a U.S. attorney, one year as a federal district judge and then his longest stint -- roughly 14 years in the Senate (six as majority leader).

He's been married twice and has two children. After leaving the Senate at the end of 1994, he served on so many corporate boards that he drew criticism from shareholder watchdogs who monitor conflicts of interest.

He also has drawn headlines for his efforts to examine and solve a series of thorny problems, often producing documents in the process.

He led a bipartisan group that developed a proposal for Middle East peace that became U.S. policy for many years. In Northern Ireland, he served as a special U.S. advisor and brokered the 1998 agreement among the United Kingdom, the Republic of Ireland, and Roman Catholic and Protestant groups in Northern Ireland that recommended disarmament and power sharing to end centuries of sectarian conflict.

In sports, he was a member of a blue-ribbon panel examining Major League Baseball economics (focusing on the difficulty that teams in small markets, such as Kansas City and Pittsburgh, have in competing against large-market teams). And he headed a panel that investigated corruption in the selection of Salt Lake City as the site of the 2002 Winter Olympics.

"I don't think he's drawn to thorny topics, but I do think anyone who has a thorny topic to resolve is drawn to him," says Bob Kerrey, the former Democratic senator from Nebraska who is a friend and admirer.

Over his career, Mitchell developed a studied manner. He does extensive research before making decisions. And he speaks so slowly during negotiations that each syllable can seem to be a paragraph.

This week, Mitchell drew parallels between peacemaking and his investigation of steroid use. In the baseball report, he detailed past misbehavior by players but recommended against disciplining them, arguing that it would be preferable to focus on preventing the use of performance-enhancing drugs in the future.

"From my experience in Northern Ireland," Mitchell said at a much-publicized news conference Thursday, "I learned that letting go of the past and looking to the future is a very hard but necessary step to dealing with an ongoing problem. That's what baseball now needs."

When Mitchell has come under criticism, it often has been because of the conflicts of interest caused by his desire to involve himself simultaneously in several projects. He made millions of dollars serving on multiple corporate boards. (At one point, he was on eight; corporate governance experts said that serving on more than four was unseemly.) He also was paid as a consultant by some companies on whose board he served, a practice that is generally considered a conflict of interest.

As a board member at the Walt Disney Co., he came under severe criticism from outsiders and insiders, including Walt Disney's nephew, Roy Disney, for being a paid consultant and for work Disney gave his firm.

Los Angeles Times Articles