The trust department

October 18, 2005

As a rule, one should not take Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr.'s talk-show rants too seriously. He tends to pontificate when he knows his host is reliably obsequious and the callers won't challenge him. And it all may be intended for comical effect - or a chance to blow off some steam before hitting the back nine. But it's hard to ignore his latest bon mots, not just because they're directed at this newspaper. No, in an outburst one had to hear to believe, Mr. Ehrlich said he thinks state Attorney General J. Joseph Curran Jr. has done him wrong by - get this - successfully defending him in the gag order lawsuit filed by The Sun.

On Saturday, Mr. Ehrlich complained to listeners of WBAL-AM radio's Stateline program that he's had to rely on outside counsel to advise him in the federal court lawsuit The Sun filed against him last year for prohibiting executive branch employees from speaking with two Sun journalists. And that private attorney hasn't been paid because Mr. Curran deemed an outside counsel unnecessary and had his lawyers do the work instead.

Mr. Ehrlich clearly doesn't trust Mr. Curran. And it's fair to say the governor and Mr. Curran differ on some issues. Certainly, the fact that Mayor Martin O'Malley, a candidate for governor next year, is Mr. Curran's son-in-law can't be ignored. But this doesn't look to be one of those conflict-of-interest situations. The fact is, Mr. Curran's staff - not any outside counsel - researched, filed briefs, argued and won the case in U.S. District Court and are litigating the pending appeal at the 4th Circuit Court.

Perhaps Mr. Ehrlich has reason to believe Mr. Curran's staff is embarrassed to be representing the governor in this matter. Mr. Ehrlich says the lawsuit is "all about politics." Rubbish. It's all about the public's right to find out what's going on. Mr. Ehrlich is intent on establishing a harmful precedent - a court-sanctioned ability to decide who can and can't have access to information from state government.

Naturally, we hope The Sun wins its case on appeal, but as a matter of principle, there is no reason here to cast the attorney general aside. Mr. Curran was elected to supervise the state's legal affairs. Voters seem to think he's doing a pretty good job, too, because two-thirds re-elected him. The governor may differ with Mr. Curran on some issues - the Democrats in the legislature have, too, from time to time - but Mr. Ehrlich can't use tax dollars to hire his own lawyer whenever he's inclined. If a genuine conflict existed or if Mr. Curran lacked particular expertise, an exception could be made - but neither is the case here.

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