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GSP: Candidate ‘abused authority’ with state patrol

By Tyler H. Jones tjones@civitasmedia.com  

Mark Mitchell, a state patrolman and a candidate for city council, is photographed by a Haren Construction Company employee while he videotapes a job site near his home on Jan. 13, 2014.

http://lagrangenews.com/wp-content/uploads/sites/37/2015/10/web1_Mitchell3.jpgMark Mitchell, a state patrolman and a candidate for city council, is photographed by a Haren Construction Company employee while he videotapes a job site near his home on Jan. 13, 2014.

An arial photo shows the pile-driving construction next to Mitchell’s home on Lakeshore Drive in an undated photo obtained by the Daily News through an open records request.

http://lagrangenews.com/wp-content/uploads/sites/37/2015/10/web1_IMG_15412.jpgAn arial photo shows the pile-driving construction next to Mitchell’s home on Lakeshore Drive in an undated photo obtained by the Daily News through an open records request. Contributed | City of LaGrange

A door in Mitchell’s house shows damage, possibly from the pile driving adjacent to his property, in an undated photo obtained by the Daily News through an open records request.

http://lagrangenews.com/wp-content/uploads/sites/37/2015/10/web1_WEB1022Mitchell022.jpgA door in Mitchell’s house shows damage, possibly from the pile driving adjacent to his property, in an undated photo obtained by the Daily News through an open records request. Contributed | City of LaGrange

http://lagrangenews.com/wp-content/uploads/sites/37/2015/10/web1_Page162.jpgContributed | City of LaGrange

Mark Mitchell, a state patrolman and a candidate for city council, is photographed by a Haren Construction Company employee while he videotapes a job site near his home on Jan. 13, 2014.

http://lagrangenews.com/wp-content/uploads/sites/37/2015/10/web1_Mitchell22.jpgMark Mitchell, a state patrolman and a candidate for city council, is photographed by a Haren Construction Company employee while he videotapes a job site near his home on Jan. 13, 2014. Contributed | City of LaGrange

Editor’s note: The investigation referenced in the following story was brought to the attention of the Daily News on Monday, Oct. 19. After filing open records requests and sitting down with candidate Mark Mitchell to address it, we felt it was in the interest of informing voters to make the investigation public. Mr. Mitchell was completely cooperative and open to our questions. This story is not an indictment against Mr. Mitchell’s campaign or a endorsement of his opponent.

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LaGRANGE — An internal investigation by the Georgia State Patrol determined a candidate for City Council abused his position with the state patrol during an ongoing personal dispute with a construction crew near his home. Mark Mitchell, a District 1C city council candidate and a lieutenant with GSP’s drug interdiction unit, was placed on paid administrative leave July 13 following an internal investigation by the state patrol, according to open records obtained by the Daily News. Haren Construction Company, an Etowah, Tennessee-based firm, contracted by the city to perform upgrades at the Yellow Jacket Creek Pump Station on Lakeshore Drive, lodged six complaints with GSP earlier this year alleging Mitchell abused his authority as a state trooper by intimidating and threatening employees of the company while they were conducting the work next door to Mitchell’s home in 2014. The complaints, filed by Haren about a year after the initial incidents, included accusations that Mitchell trespassed on job site property while both in and out of uniform, threatened arrests and used his GSP email to correspond with Haren company officials, records show. In one exchange, the job foreman told GSP investigators that when Mitchell was confronted and told to stay off the job site, he placed his hand on his service weapon and said, “come over here and get you some of this,” according to the GSP investigation. Mitchell later told investigators that the foreman had approached him in an “agitated posture” and was yelling at him when that particular incident occurred. The state patrol’s investigation sided with four of the six complaints; one was not sustained because of lack of evidence and Mitchell was exonerated of another, the case summary shows. During an in-person interview with the Daily News on Tuesday, Mitchell said he is unable to comment on the investigation due to GSP regulations. He provided the Daily News with a letter from the Department of Public Safety’s Office of Professional Standards, which investigated the claims. The letter directs Mitchell to refrain from any comment whatsoever under penalty of disciplinary action. The Daily News verified the authenticity of the letter with the office’s director, Angie Holt. The construction dispute began about March 20, 2014, when Haren Construction began driving about 80 pile sheets into the ground near Mitchell’s home, according to city records obtained by the Daily News. The city, in a $7.5 million project, was replacing an outdated facility necessary to move waste water from north LaGrange to a treatment facility south of the city, according to David Brown, the city’s public services director. The system is gravity fed, and because parts of north LaGrange are at particular elevations, an electric-powered pumping station — located next to Mitchell’s property — is required to move the flow. Haren determined a 45-foot hole was needed to meet the new project’s specifications. Rather than digging a cone-shaped hole, which Brown said would not have been feasible, the company opted to drive pile sheets into the ground to create a rectangular-shaped hole that was a safe environment for workers to dig out the 45 feet of dirt. In a letter to city council on March 23, 2014, Mitchell wrote, “Each time the hammering (from pile driving) restarted, the vibration would become more violent. I am very concerned that this was causing or may cause foundation issues for my home.” Mitchell was requesting a formal agreement from the city that would ensure the city would accept “full responsibility for any damage to my property from this construction project.” Mitchell contacted local law enforcement regarding the work at least five times between March 26, 2014, and Sept. 16, 2014. He filed noise complaints with both the LaGrange Police Department and Troup County Sheriff’s Office. He even approached the district attorney’s office about filing criminal charges, according to GSP’s investigation. LPD officer Colleen Hewett wrote in an official report dated April 4, 2014, “As I was inside his (Mitchell’s) home, the shaking seemed worse today than it was a couple of days ago. I observed change jars that were on the dressers, lying on the floor with all the money spilled onto the floor. This time, the windows in the house were flexing back and forth vigorously.” On Oct. 15, 2014, Mitchell’s attorney, Dan Lee, filed a notice with the city stating litigation was possible and requested damages totalling $353,000. The city denied the claim and by Oct. 22, 2014, the city’s insurance company sent Mitchell a letter stating the city was not at fault. Two months later, Haren Construction Company’s insurance company also denied Mitchell’s claim. Mitchell kept meticulous records of Haren’s activities at the job site. A three-ring binder at city hall inspected by the Daily News through an open records request shows pages of emails Mitchell sent to himself documenting the times and activities of Haren’s workers. The documents also show Mayor Jim Thornton and the governor’s office became involved. Writing to a governor’s aide on April 2, 2014, the mayor “wanted to assure you (the aide) and the governor that the city is working with the contractor on the project to get the work finished as quickly as possible, and the contractor is aware of Trooper Mitchell’s concerns.” GSP’s internal investigation began June 15 of this year — five days after Haren filed the six complaints on June 10. On June 11, Mitchell sent an email to the LaGrange-Troup County Chamber of Commerce regarding a forum held to educate citizens on how to run for office. Earlier this year, on March 11, Mitchell also contacted the county’s election supervisor and the assistant city manager and requested information on how to run for office. During his interview with the Daily News on Tuesday, Mitchell suggested the timing of Haren’s complaint with the state patrol was curious, and may have been tied to his prospects of running for office. “It’s awful suspicious that when I get ready to run for city council, a company that’s hired by the city to do a $14 million project files a complaint against me,” Mitchell said. “Ray Charles is blind, but he can see through that.” On July 13 this year, the state patrol placed Mitchell on administrative leave with pay pending a review of the internal investigation by the commanding officer of the state patrol. On Sept. 11 of this year, Mitchell filed for medical retirement from the state patrol. He was taken off administrative leave on Sept. 4 and immediately went on sick leave, according to state patrol Capt. Mark Perry, a public information officer. “Twenty-one years with the Georgia State Patrol, almost nine years with the Troup County Sheriff’s Office, and not a single filed complaint,” Mitchell told the Daily News. “I have received multiple commendations, including the governor’s award and I stand by my integrity.” Story updated to redact certain personal information from some of the attached documents.

Tyler H. Jones is a reporter at LaGrange Daily News. He may be reached at 706-884-7311, ext. 2155.