Ehrlich aide says he suggested Sun ban

Panel discussion provides background on decision

March 12, 2005|By Jonathan D. Rockoff | Jonathan D. Rockoff,SUN STAFF

Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr.'s communications director provided new details yesterday about the decision to bar state employees from speaking with two journalists at The Sun, including that he recommended the action to Ehrlich.

Paul E. Schurick, the communications director, also said the decision did not come easily.

"I don't think any of us were comfortable with what we did last November, but I felt, as I told the governor, we didn't have any other options," Schurick said at a panel discussion organized by the Maryland-Delaware-D.C. Press Association.

Ehrlich ordered the ban in November, Schurick said, out of frustration with the newspaper and other news media that he believed would not give his explanation for a proposal to sell land in St. Mary's County to a politically connected construction company owner.

The Sun maintains that its reporter asked Ehrlich several times to comment on whether the proposal was beneficial for taxpayers but that the governor said he did not have enough information to reply. Nor did the governor's office respond to written questions or to an interview request by David Nitkin, the Sun reporter banned by the governor after writing on the topic. The Sun quoted other administration members.

Schurick participated in a panel discussion at the Hilton Pikesville about media access and government accountability. It included Timothy A. Franklin, editor of The Sun; David Tomlin, assistant general counsel for the Associated Press; M. Jane Brady, the attorney general of Delaware; and Henry Abrams, a First Amendment lawyer in Baltimore.

Franklin, saying Ehrlich had other recourse, noted that the governor didn't call him or other top editors at the newspaper to express concerns about the coverage before issuing the order. Franklin said Ehrlich had ample opportunity to explain his position during his regular appearances on a local radio station.

In one especially sharp comment, Schurick accused The Sun of trying to defeat Ehrlich.

"This is a newspaper that didn't want Bob Ehrlich to win this election, and I am convinced will go to extraordinary lengths to try to ensure that he doesn't win re-election if he runs next year," Schurick said.

Franklin, for his part, said the paper has "really been the subject of an unprecedented smear campaign by the administration." He pointed to several recent examples of Ehrlich and other state officials publicly disparaging the accuracy of Sun stories that Franklin said were correct.

"We don't take it lightly when falsehoods are being spread about our newspaper," Franklin said.

The Sun filed a lawsuit challenging the governor's order barring state employee contact with Nitkin and columnist Michael Olesker.

Last month, U.S. District Judge William D. Quarles Jr. rejected the newspaper's First Amendment claims and threw out the lawsuit, ruling that The Sun was seeking special access.

The newspaper expects to appeal the decision next week.

During the 90-minute panel discussion, Franklin said all taxpayers should be able to call state officials and have their questions answered. "We're not seeking extraordinary access. We're seeking the same sort of access that any other citizen would have," he said.

Despite the heated exchanges, both Franklin and Schurick sounded conciliatory notes.

The editor expressed hope that the parties could settle the dispute before the newspaper files its appeal. Schurick called the current relationship between The Sun and the governor's office "unfortunate" and said, "I hope it gets better."

Schurick also praised Nitkin: "I have great respect for him. I think he's a very good journalist and he's a good guy."

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