Rivals taking aim at Ehrlich

Democrats accuse him of using his influence to push IRS audit of NAACP


Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr.'s Democratic rivals accused him yesterday of using his influence as a member of Congress to urge the Internal Revenue Service to investigate whether the NAACP engaged in political activism and violated its tax-exempt status.

The charges come a day after the Baltimore-based National Association for the Advancement of Colored People released hundreds of documents turned over to the group by the IRS. NAACP officials charge that the documents help show that partisan politicians sparked an October 2004 IRS audit as an attempt to silence the nation's oldest civil rights group.

The 532 pages include a Dec. 14, 2000, letter from Richard E. Hug, a powerful Republican political donor who is now Ehrlich's chief fundraiser, asking the IRS to launch an investigation of the organization. Two months later, Ehrlich, then a Baltimore County congressman, followed up with a letter of his own, urging the IRS to respond to his constituent's request. The letters were first reported yesterday in The Sun.

"It's political retribution; it's using federal agencies to go after people who do not agree with you politically," said Montgomery County Executive Douglas M. Duncan, who is seeking the Democratic nomination for governor. "I think it continues his pattern of deception and denying. To say that Dick Hug is just another constituent of Bob Ehrlich is ridiculous. That doesn't pass the laugh test."

Baltimore Mayor Martin O'Malley - who will face Duncan in the Democratic primary this fall for the chance to challenge Ehrlich - said the governor used his allies to engage in "dirty tricks."

"I think Marylanders expect more of their leaders than to abuse their power or to maintain dirty-tricks operations with our tax dollars," O'Malley said. "I had thought that with Watergate we were past that phase in American history when leaders would employ dirty-tricks operatives, whether it's to attack the NAACP or political opponents."

Ehrlich's letter asked the IRS to respond to his "special projects coordinator," Joseph F. Steffen Jr., a longtime aide who resigned in early 2005 after acknowledging spreading rumors about O'Malley on the Internet. Lawmakers are investigating Steffen's role in state employees allegedly being terminated for political affiliation.

Henry Fawell, an Ehrlich spokesman, maintained that Ehrlich's five-sentence letter did not offer an opinion on the NAACP's activities and instead represented a congressman's inquiry on behalf of a constituent.

Fawell added that the complaints of the governor's challengers seemed to be aimed at Hug, rather than the governor.

"It doesn't sound like they had a problem with what the governor did," he said. "It sounds like their questions are for Dick Hug."

Hug, who helped Ehrlich raise more than $10 million during the 2002 gubernatorial campaign, has defended his letter to the IRS, saying he was prompted by a television ad sponsored by the NAACP's National Voter Fund. The ad depicted the daughter of a black man dragged to death by three white men in a pickup truck in Texas, blaming then-Texas Gov. George W. Bush for failing to adopt a hate-crime law.

Hug, then the Maryland finance chairman for Bush's 2000 presidential campaign, said the NAACP attacked Bush, despite its nonprofit status which prohibits it from political activism. If the IRS were to take away the NAACP's nonprofit status, donors to the group would no longer be permitted to claim tax deductions.

Still, observers beyond Ehrlich's challengers said the governor's actions deserve criticism. Rep. Charles Rangel, a Democrat from New York who came to the defense of the NAACP after the IRS audit was launched, said elected officials use discretion when deciding whether to follow up on constituents' requests.

"You are not supposed to do anything that will impact negatively on someone or an organization; that's wrong," he said. "It's not the moral thing to do, unless you had the knowledge that there was some wrongdoing. To hide behind a constituents' request is cowardly."

Political observers said Ehrlich's letter could hamper his ability to attract black and progressive voters. The first-term Republican governor will have a tough time convincing black Marylanders, who make up nearly a third of the state's population and historically vote Democratic, that he supports their interests, said Ronald Walters, a professor of government and politics at the University of Maryland, College Park.

"This was an action that Ehrlich took on his own," Walters said. "It deepens the gulf between him and African-Americans, and it will certainly poison whatever relationship he has with African-Americans and by extension [Lt. Gov. Michael S.] Steele."

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