Ehrlich's soft sellout

February 22, 2004

TWO YEARS AGO, Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. pilloried Democrats for fostering a "culture of corruption" in Annapolis. As a candidate for governor, he spoke of the importance of ethics in the State House. On his first day in office, he signed an executive order binding executive branch employees to the "highest standards of integrity."

Yet, here we are 13 months into office and Mr. Ehrlich's supporters have already tried to shake down lobbyists for as much as $50,000 a pop to play golf with the governor. At least four pro-Ehrlich nonprofits have arisen since his election. Their purpose is to funnel soft money to support the governor, his policy positions, or his administration. It's not illegal. It just stinks.

Mr. Ehrlich's defenders will no doubt argue that the money isn't the governor's to accept or spend and promoting an agenda isn't the same as promoting the man. That's the usual refrain. An advocacy group can certainly be formed without the governor's involvement. (Well, at least technically.) It can spend unlimited money on the governor's behalf, too. (Yes, and circumvent caps on campaign donations.)

But when it comes to selling access for thousands of dollars a pop? That's the moment last year when Mr. Ehrlich could easily have put his foot down. For that, he had to give his approval. Or if he didn't, he presumably would have denounced the arrangement, something he hasn't done.

Who spends $25,000 for a date with the state's highest elected leader? We don't know. These third-party nonprofits don't have to report donors or donations the way a politician must, another reason they're so popular. But the people who spend that kind of money will want a return.

U.S. Attorney Thomas M. DiBiagio is already looking into the secretive group put together by Richard E. Hug, Mr. Ehrlich's campaign finance chair, that's been hitting up gambling and horse-racing interests for donations. The group wants to run ads in favor of the governor's slots initiative. Mr. Ehrlich says his friend -- and member of the University System of Maryland's Board of Regents -- is just exercising his constitutional rights.

Of course, there are Democrats abusing soft money. Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller is also the subject of a DiBiagio inquiry. A committee he controls has raised money from gambling interests, too.

But it was Mr. Ehrlich who claimed he'd change the Annapolis "culture of corruption." Instead, he's upped the ante. Maybe Washington, where soft money is even more pervasive, can't stop it, but the governor doesn't have to play dumb. And he certainly doesn't have to let his integrity be auctioned off by his surrogates at $25,000 a ticket.

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