Maryland first lady Kendel S. Ehrlich disclosed yesterday that she receives a $55,000-a-year salary from Comcast, but said her part-time job producing anti-drug programs for the cable giant creates no conflict of interest with her husband's duties.
Comcast holds millions of dollars in contracts with state agencies and is regulated by the Public Service Commission, whose members are appointed by the governor.
Appearing with Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. on WCBM radio yesterday morning, Kendel Ehrlich criticized a newspaper report about her outside employment, saying that her job with Comcast, which has most of the cable subscribers in Maryland, predated her husband's election as governor.
"I hope that women are offended by this article because it's saying, I guess, that women can't work," she said.
Kendel Ehrlich's spokesman, Derek J. Fink, said the first lady is a salaried employee of the company and has been since 2001, except for several months in 2003 and 2004 around the birth of the couple's second son, Joshua. He said she worked as a consultant for Comcast from 1997 to 2001, well before her husband decided to run for governor.
Since returning to the company in 2004, Kendel Ehrlich has produced 16 half-hour shows in a series called Live Right.
The governor has disclosed his wife's job on annual forms he files with the Maryland State Ethics Commission, but the reports do not require the family to list her income. The first lady's office disclosed the salary after The Washington Post reported on her anti-drug show.
The region's dominant cable provider, Comcast does business with the state university system and state agencies, the financial disclosure forms show. State regulators oversee many of the company's business practices, and the company pays for its name to appear on the College Park arena where the University of Maryland basketball team plays.
Bobbie Walton, executive director of Common Cause Maryland, said Kendel Ehrlich's job creates the appearance of a conflict of interest because her husband has the potential to benefit Comcast through his control of regulatory and business decisions of the state.
The size of Kendel Ehrlich's salary calls into question Comcast's motivations for hiring her, Walton said.
"How many hours a week does she work for that?" she asked. "There are a lot of people that would like a part-time job that paid that much.
"Are they investing that amount of money in her talent? Are they investing in her time? Or are they investing in her connections, in the fact that she has a name and a relationship?" Walton added.
Fink, the spokesman, said he did not know how many hours a week Kendel Ehrlich devoted to the job.
Comcast Mid-Atlantic spokesman Jim Gordon said that as a matter of company policy, he could not discuss an individual employee's compensation. He directed questions about whether the first lady intends to make more programs for the series to her office.
Gordon said it was impossible to determine immediately how many people have watched the 16 shows produced by the first lady, which are not broadcast on a regular schedule but are only available through a service known as Comcast On Demand.
According to an overview of the program provided by the first lady's office, Kendel Ehrlich interviewed parents, teens, police, former addicts and others and filmed a live, town meeting-style segment at Maryland Public Television's studio.
Scott Arceneaux, the campaign manager for Montgomery County Executive Douglas M. Duncan, a Democrat running for governor, called the salary excessive for the amount of work Kendel Ehrlich performed.
"It appears that Kendel Ehrlich is well on her way to competing with Jennifer Anniston and the cast of Friends in her salary per episode," Arceneaux said.
Jonathan Epstein, the campaign manager for Ehrlich's other Democratic rival, Baltimore Mayor Martin O'Malley, declined to comment.
Kendel Ehrlich has been actively involved in drug-abuse issues for much of her career, which has included stints as a prosecutor and a public defender.
She is also known as an influential figure in her husband's administration. She frequently represents the governor at events around the state and plays an active role in helping the governor manage his staff and advising him on legal issues, in particular judicial appointments.
Her association with Comcast has come under scrutiny before. In 2003, the liberal advocacy group Progressive Maryland asked the attorney general to investigate whether the governor had a conflict of interest in vetoing a bill that would have closed a tax loophole for companies including Comcast.
She said at the time that she didn't discuss the matter with her husband.
Kendel Ehrlich started as a lawyer with Comcast and moved to a part-time consulting position setting up a computer training program for teachers after her husband became governor. The governor's disclosure forms indicate that she became a salaried employee in June 2001 and took a leave in November 2003.