Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. questioned yesterday the fitness of State Attorney General J. Joseph Curran Jr. to represent his administration in a First Amendment lawsuit filed by The Sun.
Speaking on the WBAL-AM Stateline program, Ehrlich, a Republican, said he had asked to have his personal lawyer defend him because the suit was "all about politics."
Curran, a Democrat and father-in-law of gubernatorial hopeful and Baltimore Mayor Martin O'Malley, rebuffed Ehrlich's request in an appearance on the station after the governor, noting that his office had successfully gotten the case dismissed earlier in the year.
Ehrlich's remarks raise the question of how the relationship between Curran and O'Malley will play out in an election year if the Baltimore mayor wins the Democratic nomination and faces Ehrlich in 2006.
The Sun filed a lawsuit last year after the governor's press office imposed a ban prohibiting state executive branch employees from speaking to two Sun journalists. The ban was issued after the newspaper reported on a proposed no-bid land deal involving the Ehrlich administration and a politically connected contractor. A federal District Court judge dismissed the case in February, and the newspaper is appealing that decision. Oral arguments in the appeal are scheduled for Nov. 29 in the Richmond, Va.-based 4th Circuit Court of Appeals.
Ehrlich said he has relied on his own attorney in the case, an apparent reference to David Hamilton, one of his advisers who has participated in settlement negotiations with The Sun in attempts to have the ban lifted.
"That litigation was all about politics, as you well know, and the in-house journalists for the Democratic Party of Maryland - the Sunpapers - suing me," Ehrlich said. "When that [the request for independent counsel] was turned down, I relied on outside counsel, right now on a pro bono basis. I hope to get that counsel paid. That has been a real serious situation. That was not pleasant. I thought it was something that it should have been granted to me."
Sun Editor Timothy A. Franklin said yesterday that "the lawsuit has never been about politics. It's about the public's right of access to taxpayer-paid government officials. It's worth noting that last year The Sun successfully sued Democratic Mayor Martin O'Malley for access to an investigative report about his former police chief."
Ehrlich said the fact that Curran won the case was irrelevant since it is "pretty much a slam-dunk case."
The attorney general said yesterday that he declined the governor's request because Maryland laws call on Curran's office to represent the state.
Referring to his office's handling of the Sun lawsuit, Curran said: "We did the research, we did the briefing, we did the arguing and we won the case. So in truth, I would think that people would say, `Thank you very much for the great job you did.'"
Ehrlich said he was not questioning Curran's integrity, but added: "Obviously, he wants his son-in-law to be governor. He's human. I understand that. Good for him. He should want his son-in-law to be governor. But I am also governor, and intend to be governor for a long time, and in some cases it makes it very, very difficult for a lot of well-meaning people."
Curran said he would never violate the oath he has taken to uphold the laws of Maryland.
"I'm not going to deny that my wife and I are very fond of Martin," he said. "He is a wonderful person and I'm sure he is going to be trying to impress the rest of the state as he has impressed us. But in doing my job, be assured that at no time are we going to be doing anything other than what is right."
Curran plans to seek re-election but has said he would reconsider if his candidacy hindered O'Malley's gubernatorial bid.