Case casts shadow over aide

Firm started by Ehrlich staffer again linked to Abramoff probe

November 11, 2005|By ANDREW A. GREEN | ANDREW A. GREEN,SUN REPORTER

A company once owned by Edward B. Miller - Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr.'s deputy chief of staff - has become embroiled in new allegations that indicted lobbyist Jack Abramoff tried to use the firm as a conduit for $9 million in payments to set up a meeting between President Bush and an African leader.

Miller, who was on a trade mission to Israel with Lt. Gov. Michael S. Steele this week, has declined to comment on his operation of Grassroots Interactive. The company was previously implicated in congressional testimony in a scheme to launder $2 million in lobbying fees from Tyco Inc. into accounts Abramoff controlled during the spring and summer of 2003.

The new allegations, reported in The New York Times yesterday, involve a draft agreement between Abramoff and the African nation of Gabon dated Aug. 7, 2003, that requested that the $9 million in fees be paid to Grassroots in three wire transfers.

That was two weeks before Miller took a job in the Ehrlich administration at the Department of Business and Economic Development and five weeks before he sold Grassroots, state records show.

"Mr. Miller was not connected in any way to, nor did he have any knowledge whatsoever of, any proposal or project relating to Gabon," Miller's lawyer, Aron U. Raskas, wrote yesterday in an e-mail.

Bush subsequently met with President Omar Bongo of Gabon on May 26, 2004, in a meeting the White House said was arranged through normal diplomatic channels.

Ehrlich spokesman Henry Fawell declined to comment on the new report involving Miller's company and pointed to a previous statement in which he called Miller "a valuable member of the team" and said he has been cooperating with a federal grand jury, which subpoenaed him last year.

The administration has not responded to written questions, submitted more than a month ago, about whether the governor has spoken to Miller about his activities at Grassroots and whether he is aware of the evidence that the firm was used by Abramoff as a front during the time Miller owned it.

Miller's relationship with Ehrlich dates to his days as a student at the Gilman School, the private boys school that he and the governor attended a decade apart. While in school, Miller volunteered for one of Ehrlich's campaigns for the House of Delegates.

Miller is a key figure in the Ehrlich administration. He is one of three deputy chiefs of staff, overseeing more than a dozen state departments and agencies, including Business and Economic Development, Environment, Natural Resources and Transportation. He has an office on the same floor of the State House as the governor and regularly attends meetings with Ehrlich.

Miller previously accompanied Ehrlich on a trade mission to Israel. Last month, he was seated with Ehrlich at the head table at the Maryland Chamber of Commerce's annual convention in Cambridge.

While the Ehrlich administration stood by Miller, Maryland Democratic Party spokesman Derek Walker said yesterday that Miller should either step down or provide a public explanation of his actions at Grassroots.

People voted for Ehrlich, in part, because of his promise to "end the culture of corruption" in Annapolis, and they deserve to know what role, if any, a member of the administration played in a national ethics scandal, Walker said.

"The first thing Miller needs to do, he needs to come clean, and the governor, he needs to come clean," Walker said. "They have an opportunity to really step away from something that is horrible and part of what's brought down the Republicans several notches nationally."

State Board of Elections records show that Abramoff and his wife, Pamela, contributed a total of $16,000 to Ehrlich during the past two election cycles, the maximum allowable under state law. The Abramoffs donated another $11,750 to various Maryland Republican Party campaign accounts in that time.

This fall, Timothy E. Flanigan, the general counsel for Tyco whom Bush nominated for deputy attorney general, testified before the Senate Judiciary Committee that in the spring of 2003, Abramoff steered a $2 million lobbying contract to Grassroots, which Miller incorporated in May 2003.

Flanigan said he learned a year later that Grassroots had done little of the promised work and that $1.5 million had been laundered into other accounts in what he termed "major fraud."

State business incorporation records show that Miller sold the company in September 2003. Miller wrote in his financial disclosure statement to the state ethics commission that he founded the company with $10,000 in cash and recouped his initial investment upon selling the company four months later.

He said in his form that he was the sole owner of the company during that time.

The Times, citing documents it obtained from federal investigators, also reported that Abramoff moved $2.7 million through Grassroots Interactive to companies that appeared to be associated with Abramoff family members. The Times report did not indicate whether those transactions took place before Miller sold the firm, however.

andy.green@baltsun.com

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