Governor relies on mentor Finney's counsel

Legal adviser postponed retirement to aid Ehrlich

March 05, 2003|By David Nitkin | David Nitkin,SUN STAFF

Jervis S. Finney can precisely recall making the offer.

Bob Ehrlich remembers exactly where he was when he was floored by it.

In early October, 30 days before the election, Finney - former state senator, U.S. attorney, corporate defense lawyer and GOP gray eminence - telephoned Ehrlich to tell him he would delay retirement.

"I said, `After all this is over, if we prevail, I will do whatever you like, for the rest of my working career,'" recalls Finney.

Ehrlich was astounded. Mentor was telling protege he would sell the family homestead, move to Annapolis and return to public service. "This is a guy who has been huge in my life," the governor says.

At 71, Finney is now legal counsel to Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., his plate heaped with responsibilities. He's negotiating around a speed-bump in a state police racial-profiling settlement, toiling to enact Ehrlich's Project Exile gun crime program and soothing the strained relations between the governor and U.S. Attorney Thomas M. DiBiagio.

And as a respected ethicist who served on the State Ethics Commission and has been hired in the past by the General Assembly for inquiries into lawmaker conduct, he's also helping the governor navigate ethical straits.

"He's having a ball," says Ehrlich. "He's busy."

As he builds his inner circle of advisers, it's no surprise Ehrlich would want Finney close at hand - easily summoned to the State House second floor with a quick telephone call. Finney has been a friend, confidant and adviser for more than three decades, and the family's influence on the governor's life is almost immeasurable.

It was Redmond C.S. Finney, Jervis' brother, who shepherded Ehrlich through Gilman School, helping pay tuition at the prep school.

`A fairy godfather'

After graduating from Wake Forest UniversityLaw School, Ehrlich took a job with Ober, Kaler, Grimes and Shriver, where Jervis Finney was a senior partner. Three years later, Ehrlich was seeking Finney's guidance on how to tell the partners that he wanted to run for office, a decision that would cut deeply into the billable hours he would ring up for the firm.

"Large firms do not encourage their associates to do that, because they are money-making machines. You're working 2,000 hours. You're billing. But I had a fairy godfather," the governor recalls.

That godfather had followed the same path 20 years earlier. In 1962, "I had gone to the partners in the firm, and I had done the same thing," Finney says.

That year, he was elected to the Baltimore County Council from the 2nd District, which includes Pikesville and Randallstown, swept in on a ticket headed by Spiro T. Agnew.

Four years later, he won a seat in the state Senate from Baltimore County, and after two terms made a run for county executive in 1974. In the aftermath of the corruption conviction of Executive Dale Anderson, Finney was vying with Theodore G. Venetoulis for the right to clean up county government. He lost to Venetoulis by fewer than 7,000 votes, despite outspending him nearly 2-1.

"He was going to do what I was doing, which was reform the county," says Venetoulis. "The battle was who was going to be the reformer, and I won it in the primary."

Nonetheless, Venetoulis recalls, Finney and his supporters "ran a very formidable race."

"He's a rough inside player," he says. "If Ehrlich needs some steel, Finney will give it to him. And he won't leave any footprints."

Shortly after the loss, Finney was named U.S. attorney for Maryland, appointed by President Gerald R. Ford to replace George Beall.

It was there that he burnished his reputation as squeaky clean and ethically pure, a label he carries to this day. If Ehrlich was looking for someone to battle the so-called "culture of corruption" in Annapolis, common wisdom is that he could do no better.

"He is just the epitome of integrity," says Richard D. Bennett, a former U.S. attorney appointed in January to a federal judgeship. "Jervie is the person you go to for guidance, and anybody who ever worked for him feels that way. He is a marvelous filter. If you run something by Jervie, and he expresses reservations, his judgment should be given strong emphasis."

The odd couple

As a federal prosecutor from 1975 to 1978, Finney led many white-collar cases and, notably, oversaw the charges against former Gov. Marvin Mandel.

In a twist, both Finney and Mandel - the prosecutor and defendant - are close advisers to Ehrlich today: Finney on legal issues, Mandel on reorganizing government.

Finney says that he has no problem with Mandel's increased visibility (the former governor was named by Ehrlich last month to the University System of Maryland Board of Regents), but adds that he and Mandel don't speak. "Bygones be bygones. What's done is done," Finney says. "I've seen him once."

For his part, Mandel says he bears no ill will toward Finney, saying the prosecutor "was coming in at the end of the movie," and that his case was pushed by assistants in the office.

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