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District Attorney asks SBI to investigate whether James Mitchell still owns 25% of R.J. Leeper

Mecklenburg District Attorney Spencer Merriweather has asked whether City Council member James "Smuggie" Mitchell still owns 25 percent of RJ Leeper Construction.
Mecklenburg District Attorney Spencer Merriweather has asked whether City Council member James "Smuggie" Mitchell still owns 25% of R.J. Leeper Construction.

The Mecklenburg District Attorney’s office said Monday it has asked the State Bureau of Investigation to determine whether City Council member James Mitchell owns 25% of R.J. Leeper Construction — and if he is breaking state law by serving.

In January 2021, Mitchell resigned from City Council because he owned 25% of R.J. Leeper, a prominent contractor that does work for the city, including the new $600 million terminal expansion at Charlotte Douglas. Leeper also was a subcontractor on the recent expansion of the Charlotte Convention Center.

He stepped down because state law says that if someone owns more than 10% of a company that does business with a city or town, they can’t serve as an elected official there.

Mitchell left Leeper in the summer of 2021 — and then won reelection to council this July.

During the campaign, Mitchell maintained that he still owns 25% of the company. He said that Leeper executives could buy him out so they could continue to do business with the city.

However, Leeper executives told the city of Charlotte that they took his ownership share after he failed to repay a $375,000 loan.

No judge has ruled on whether or not Mitchell still owns part of the company.

District Attorney Spencer Merriweather’s office said Monday that it has asked the SBI to determine if Mitchell owns part of Leeper and “whether that purported business arrangement is inconsistent…with state law.”

It said that “as with any criminal inquiry, a request for an investigation is not — in and of itself — a confirmation of the existence of criminal wrongdoing.”

After Mitchell was sworn in last week, he declined to answer comments about his ownership stake, saying it’s a “business matter.” City Attorney Patrick Baker said in a memo before the swearing-in ceremony that it’s not the city’s responsibility to determine whether or not Mitchell owns part of the company. He wrote that Mitchell — and not the city — would be subject to criminal penalties if found to be in violation of the statute.

Mitchell declined to comment Monday on the SBI review.

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Steve Harrison is WFAE's politics and government reporter. Prior to joining WFAE, Steve worked at the Charlotte Observer, where he started on the business desk, then covered politics extensively as the Observer’s lead city government reporter. Steve also spent 10 years with the Miami Herald. His work has appeared in The Washington Post, the Sporting News and Sports Illustrated.