Tracking `MD4Bush' identity is debated

Some say outing site user will affect governor's race, but others don't see a direct link

December 17, 2005|By DAVID NITKIN AND DOUG DONOVAN | DAVID NITKIN AND DOUG DONOVAN,SUN REPORTERS

As Republicans and conservatives zero in on the identity of the mysterious Internet visitor who coaxed an aide to Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. into spreading rumors about Baltimore Mayor Martin O'Malley, a question is blossoming in political circles.

Does the identity of MD4Bush, the surreptitious user of a conservative Web site, matter? If revealed, will the knowledge change the public's perception of O'Malley or Ehrlich?

Some political experts say that the answer to both questions is yes and that it's worth following the plot turns in the increasingly convoluted saga. If MD4Bush turns out to be a Democratic Party official with links to O'Malley, they say, the story changes drastically. O'Malley's reputation will have been stained, they say.

"If it was a setup, that's got lack of ethics written all over it," said Donald F. Norris, a public policy professor at University of Maryland, Baltimore County. "If you set a guy up to get him, that's political dirty tricks. Whose hands are dirtier? Any benefit that would have accrued to O'Malley's campaign because of the dirty tricks of Ehrlich now bite the mayor in the you-know-what."

But others say that the identity of the Internet user is a political sideshow with little impact in the race for governor. O'Malley is seeking the Democratic nomination against Montgomery County Executive Douglas M. Duncan for the right to run against Ehrlich.

"I don't know really at the end of the day what the whole exercise is about," said Julius Henson, a Baltimore political consultant who has endured his share of accusations about his tactics.

"Ehrlich is the incumbent. He has the advantage because he is the incumbent. His supporters are fanatical; they work hard, day and night," Henson said. "I don't understand why they need [to pursue the issue]. I just think they should go to work. On the merits of their incumbency and their work ethic, it ought to be enough for them to win."

The latest information about MD4Bush came out this week, when a freerepublic.com spokesman confirmed that one of the e-mail addresses used to register the user account came from the Maryland Democratic Party. State party officials say they don't know anything about MD4Bush and have no way of verifying whether the party e-mail address was typed in by a worker or improperly used by someone else.

Yesterday, Kristinn Taylor, a spokesman for freerepublic.com, disclosed more details. He said three Internet provider addresses were used by MD4Bush -- one in Pasadena, one maintained by The Washington Post in Bowie, and one in Baltimore. The Post has acknowledged that a reporter logged on as MD4Bush earlier this year to verify the postings' authenticity.

The tale began more than a year ago. In October 2004, someone created the identity on freerepublic.com and promptly began sending e-mails to another Free Republic user who called himself NCPAC. NCPAC would later be shown to be Joseph F. Steffen Jr., a longtime aide to Ehrlich who has been accused of spreading rumors about the governor's past political opponents for many years.

In responding to the e-mails, NCPAC acknowledged he had heard about rumors about O'Malley's marriage (he had posted messages about them months earlier). "As for MO'M, his day is coming," NCPAC wrote in one exchange with MD4Bush. "A lot of the reason that everyone knows his history is because of what has gone on beneath the surface." He also said "a few folks put in a lot of effort to ensure the M'OM story got some real float."

The discussions collected by MD4Bush were then provided to a Post reporter, who confronted Steffen. The aide confirmed that he was NCPAC and offered his resignation to the governor. Ehrlich accepted and later said he fired Steffen, who had worked on many of his campaigns and who said he was also assigned to several state agencies to help the governor replace longtime employees with Republican loyalists.

Steffen also apologized to O'Malley.

For political insiders, it seemed clear from the outset that MD4Bush was a Democrat with O'Malley leanings. Democrats note that since Steffen was fired, rumors about the mayor's fidelity have dissipated. Even if MD4Bush is a Democratic party official, it doesn't change what Steffen did in the past, or on the Internet, they say.

"I don't think the story [of MD4Bush's identity] is important," said Derek Walker, acting executive director of the state Democratic Party.

Still, Jervis S. Finney, chief counsel to Ehrlich, has been trying to learn the identity of MD4Bush, and Free Republic officials have become increasingly cooperative. Ehrlich offered mixed signals yesterday on whether the inquiry was worthy.

The involvement of a Democratic party member in the Internet postings made it appear that Steffen was "set up," the governor said.

"It doesn't smell very good," Ehrlich said. "It appears there were some folks ... connected with the Maryland Democratic Party, a candidate or different candidates who wanted to do something hurtful to the administration."

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