No decision on naming governor's golf partners

Ehrlich's office reacts to watchdog group request that centers on access

August 19, 2005|By Jennifer Skalka | Jennifer Skalka,SUN STAFF

The governor's office said yesterday that no decision had been made about whether to disclose names of his golf partners as requested by Common Cause Maryland, and that Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. is in full compliance with state ethics laws.

"The governor's golf outings are on his private time on his private dime," said spokeswoman Shareese N. DeLeaver. "When the governor plays golf, it's for recreation. He is not conducting state business."

The Common Cause request was made Wednesday after reports that Ohio's governor, Republican Bob Taft, had not disclosed 52 golf games, dinners or gifts paid for by other people. Taft pleaded no contest yesterday to four misdemeanor counts of violating state ethics laws. He was fined $4,000 but will not serve jail time.

Maryland ethics laws require that the governor report gifts in excess of $20, so if Ehrlich's greens fees are paid by anyone else, he would have to include that information on his financial disclosure forms.

"If he pays for it himself, he wouldn't have had to report anything," said Robert Hahn, general counsel for the Maryland State Ethics Commission. "It's only when it's a gift that it becomes a reportable thing."

A passionate and, by many accounts, talented golfer, Ehrlich's 2003 and 2004 disclosure forms list several golf-related presents - $30 golf shirts, a crystal golf ball clock of unknown value, a $110 gift certificate to Oakmont Green Golf Club in Hampstead - but no greens fees.

He holds an honorary membership, however, in the exclusive and expensive Caves Valley Golf Club in Owings Mills. That membership was created in 1991 for Maryland's sitting governor, whoever he or she might be and regardless of party affiliation, according to Linda Meck, the club's reservations manager.

Ehrlich did not list the Caves Valley membership in his 2003 and 2004 disclosure forms. DeLeaver said the governor's office was advised by the state ethics commission in 2003 that it was not necessary because the gift is to the office of the governor, not Ehrlich.

James Browning, executive director of Common Cause Maryland, said his group is raising the question about access to the governor, not just gifts. Browning said the public has a right to know with whom Ehrlich is spending long hours golfing, especially if those playing partners are lobbyists or political supporters.

"There's the real danger that this becomes his office in the rough," Browning said.

Mary Boyle, a spokeswoman for Common Cause in Washington, disagreed with DeLeaver's assertion that the governor's golf time is his private time.

"I think when you are elected governor, to some extent the people you are spending considerable leisure time with does become some of the public's business," she said.

Boyle said that even if the governor pays his greens fees, if a golf partner provides entry into a pricey private club, that access is worth something - and it could come with a price.

"If he's being taken to exclusive courses, he's accepting something of value from them," she said.

Hahn said state ethics laws do not address the matter of access to an exclusive club.

Derek Walker, a spokesman for the Maryland Democratic Party, said Ehrlich spends too much time on the links, and he chided the governor for not providing the information requested by Common Cause.

"The golf course is Bob Ehrlich's Crawford," Walker said, referring to President Bush's Texas vacation home. "If they won't talk about it, they're hiding something."

DeLeaver, meanwhile, emphasized that the governor's personal time should be his own. She said she wonders why Common Cause has not called on other Maryland officials to disclose their golf buddies.

"If this type of request starts, where does it end?" she said.

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