Workers are sent Ehrlich's message

Talking points for agency employees defend his record, lash opponents

April 30, 2005|By Andrew A. Green | Andrew A. Green,SUN STAFF

In a move legislative leaders call Orwellian, Department of Public Safety and Corrections officials distributed sets of talking points to employees after the end of the legislative session this month praising Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. and bashing his political opponents.

One, which was posted on April 18 on the agency's internal Web page, is labeled "Myth vs. Reality: The 2005 General Assembly Session." It lauds the governor's agenda, defends his stances on bills and criticizes the legislature, heaping scorn on Ehrlich's nemesis in the quest for slot machines, House Speaker Michael E. Busch.

The other, attached to an e-mail sent April 13, is titled "Dos and Don'ts in the Maryland General Assembly." It purports to list what the legislature has done -- pass tax increases and "ridiculous legislation" -- and what it won't do -- "honor veterans," "fund education and save horse racing," "help doctors and patients" and "protect vulnerable children and families."

The e-mail, sent by the department's executive director of communications, Jacqueline Lampell, says: "Secretary [Mary Ann] Saar asks that you print out the attached talking points on the just concluded General Assembly session and use them when appropriate at staff meetings to get the administration's message out regarding why some important legislation did not pass."

None of the items listed in either message deals with the Department of Public Safety and Corrections.

Legislators who saw the documents called them unfair, misleading and, in parts, outright inaccurate. Busch said he would expect to see such propaganda in a totalitarian regime, not the government of Maryland.

"They've taken a nonpartisan workforce and turned it into a partisan tool," Busch said. "Everything you value in a free society no longer exists if you happen to be an employee of the state of Maryland."

Lampell said the material came from Ehrlich's communications office and that she and Saar believe it's important that all employees see it.

"We feel that it is good to ensure that the message goes unfiltered to our employees," she said. "This is something that Secretary Saar has asked that the communications office do, and we have done it and we will continue to do it."

Lampell added that she has worked in communications in state government for 16 years and that previous governors have done the same thing.

Ehrlich spokesman Henry Fawell confirmed that the governor's communications office prepared the materials and sent them to public information officers across state government. The office did not specify what the officials should do with them or suggest they be disseminated to all state employees.

"These are the facts," Fawell said. "The governor's office uses various ways to get the facts out to the public and those who communicate with the public, and this is one of those methods."

Among the assertions the Web site posting attempts to debunk is that Busch was a winner in the legislative session. It criticizes him for the number of bills he sponsored that were killed and accuses him of pushing for "a phony property tax gimmick and property transfer tax hike," among other things.

House leaders did propose rolling back the 5-cent property tax increase Ehrlich enacted two years ago. When the Senate objected, House negotiators suggested smaller cuts, all of which the Senate rejected. Leaders there said they feared a reduction now would force the state to cut services or raise taxes again in coming years.

Two weeks later, Ehrlich pushed for a 1-cent property tax reduction through the Board of Public Works, but Comptroller William Donald Schaefer and Treasurer Nancy K. Kopp refused, pointing to the same reasons the Senate gave the House.

Busch's proposal to change transfer tax rules would not have increased rates but would have closed a loophole that allows limited liability corporations to pay no taxes when they sell real estate.

Among "ridiculous legislation" the e-mail points to are bills to designate walking as the official state exercise and "27 bills to weaken the governor's office."

One of the bills the General Assembly passed this year to diminish the governor's power places a constitutional amendment on the ballot that would require the legislature's approval before the state sold preservation or parkland, a measure Ehrlich endorsed.

Del. Galen R. Clagett, a Frederick County Democrat who got a copy of the Web posting from a corrections employee, called the materials "half-truths and distortions." For the department to distribute it to employees is "beyond the pale," he said.

"I can understand [Saar] being concerned about legislation that directly affected her operation and maybe commenting on that in an objective manner, but I think there's a responsibility to be honest and fair and thorough in what they present," Clagett said. "What we're getting is just more of that same spin stuff this [governor] is famous for."

Sen. Brian E. Frosh, the Montgomery County Democrat who chairs the Judicial Proceedings Committee, said he can understand giving this kind of material to the department secretary or other political appointees but not using it to indoctrinate workers at staff meetings.

"This is going a little far," Frosh said. "I really don't think that the folks in career slots in the department ought to be out there mouthing the party line only because it's the party line, and especially when it doesn't relate to the department. It's like out of 1984 -- the ministry of propaganda directs you to say black is white and up is down."

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