Ehrlich not concerned about aide investigation

Staffer Miller linked to indicted lobbyist

November 15, 2005|By ANDREW A. GREEN | ANDREW A. GREEN,SUN REPORTER

Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. said yesterday he has not spoken extensively with Deputy Chief of Staff Edward B. Miller about a company founded by the aide that is now part of a federal investigation, and is not concerned about the matter.

The governor said he has assigned his chief legal counsel, Jervis S. Finney, to look into Miller's former company, Grassroots Interactive, and the company's connection to indicted lobbyist Jack Abramoff. Ehrlich said he has spoken to Miller about it "hardly at all."

"I'm not concerned about it at all on the basis of what Jervis has told me," Ehrlich said, referring further questions to Finney.

Grassroots Interactive received a subpoena last year from a federal grand jury investigating Abramoff, and appears to have been created as a way for the lobbyist to launder money paid by his clients as fees.

According to testimony before the Senate Judiciary Committee, Abramoff steered a $2 million lobbying contract from Tyco Inc. to Grassroots, only to divert most of the money into other accounts he controlled. Abramoff represented Tyco at the time.

Timothy E. Flanigan, Tyco's chief counsel, who was President Bush's nominee to be deputy attorney general until he withdrew from consideration last month, said that Abramoff used Grassroots to commit "major fraud" in the spring and summer of 2003. According to state records, Miller founded the firm in May 2003 with a $10,000 investment and was its sole owner until he sold it four months later, recouping his money.

Miller took a job with the state Department of Business and Economic Development in August 2003. He sold the company a few weeks later. He was promoted to his current position in 2004.

Finney said he has spoken with Miller and reviewed news reports and congressional testimony about Grassroots Interactive. He said he has found nothing of concern.

"My recommendation is that everything goes forward as usual," Finney said. "He's a very valuable member of the governor's advisers."

One of Ehrlich's three deputy chiefs of staff, Miller oversees more than a dozen state departments and agencies as a key member of the governor's inner circle. Last week, he traveled to Israel on a trade mission with Lt. Gov. Michael S. Steele.

Maryland Democratic Party spokesman Derek Walker said he is comforted that the administration has sought to investigate Miller and Grassroots. But he said he has no confidence in Finney's ability to draw objective conclusions.

After Ehrlich fired Joseph F. Steffen Jr., his former aide who admitted to spreading online rumors about Mayor Martin O'Malley, the governor asked Finney to investigate the matter. Walker called the probe "smoke and mirrors." Much of Finney's effort has been dedicated to uncovering the identity of the user of an Internet message board who appears to have baited Steffen into discussing the rumors.

Finney also has emerged as a chief antagonist to Democratic legislators investigating the Ehrlich administration's personnel practices in another offshoot of the Steffen scandal. Steffen has said he was assigned to state agencies to identify workers who could be replaced with administration loyalists.

"Unfortunately, the political gamesmanship and partisan behavior that Mr. Finney has practiced over the course of the last several months does not give me a high degree of confidence in his findings," Walker said.

Miller has declined to comment since his former company's name surfaced in connection with Abramoff this fall. Ehrlich's office has said that Miller has been cooperating with federal investigators for more than a year.

The New York Times reported last week that federal investigators have discovered that in August 2003, Abramoff attempted to use Grassroots as a conduit for $9 million in payments to secure a meeting between President Omar Bongo of Gabon and President Bush. Miller's attorney, Aron U. Raskas, said his client knew nothing about the Gabon deal.

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

The Times also reported that it had obtained documents showing Abramoff used Grassroots to funnel at least $2.7 million into accounts apparently controlled by his relatives. The Times report did not indicate whether those transfers occurred at a time when Miller owned the company.

andy.green@baltsun.com

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