Ehrlich defends 2001 IRS inquiry

Governor says letter took no position on NAACP activities


Amid mounting criticism for playing a role in an audit of the NAACP, Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. defended yesterday his decision to ask the IRS to reply to a complaint that the civil rights organization had become too political, saying the action was appropriate for any elected official.

The governor made his first public comments about the issue two days after The Sun reported on documents released by the NAACP revealing that Ehrlich and his current fundraising chief, Richard E. Hug, were among several Republicans who asked the Internal Revenue Service to investigate if the civil rights group had violated its tax-exempt status.

In his Dec. 14, 2000, letter urging an IRS investigation, Hug - who had been President Bush's chief fundraiser in Maryland in the 2000 campaign - said he was concerned that the NAACP had "become increasingly political in recent years, particularly under present leadership."

Two months later, Ehrlich, then a Baltimore County congressman, followed up with a letter to the IRS. "I would appreciate if you would provide us with a status update on this matter as soon as possible," he wrote. He also included a copy of the letter from Hug, whom he called a constituent.

Ehrlich said yesterday that his letter did not take a position on the organization's activities and he maintained that it represented a routine request. "Yes, we would personally send letters on behalf of constituents," he said yesterday. "We would proudly make an inquiry of that type. Congressmen do that for a living."

Hug acknowledged yesterday that he did not live in Ehrlich's congressional district when he wrote the IRS letter.

Hug, who raised more than $10 million for Ehrlich's 2002 gubernatorial campaign, said yesterday that he lived in Arnold in Anne Arundel County - which was outside of Ehrlich's district. Hug continued yesterday to defend the governor's actions.

"I guess it depends on how you define constituent," Hug said. "I look at my congresspeople, whether it be [Rep. Benjamin L.] Cardin or [Rep. C.A. Dutch] Ruppersberger, or [Sen. Barbara A.] Mikulski, or what have you, as being responsive to the needs of all the citizens of Maryland."

The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People released the documents hoping they would force the IRS to reveal additional documents that the organization believes are proof that an October 2004 audit by the IRS is a politically motivated attack to silence the group. The 523 pages included letters sent to the IRS on behalf of constituents by such lawmakers as then-Sen. Strom Thurmond of South Carolina, Rep. Larry Combest of Texas and Rep. Joe Scarborough of Florida, now an MSNBC personality.

Hug has said he was moved to write to the IRS during the 2000 presidential campaign by the release of an ad by the NAACP Voter Fund that he believed was a partisan assault on Bush. The ad depicted a family member of a black man who had been dragged to death by three white men in Texas blaming the Texas governor for not passing a hate crime law.

The Maryland Democratic Party called yesterday for Ehrlich to fire Hug. Terry Lierman, the party chairman, said Hug's actions were harmful and Ehrlich should disassociate himself from Hug.

"The damage done to the NAACP by Ehrlich, Hug and their Republican schemers harms us all," Lierman said. "Richard Hug's actions in 2000 were political and hostile to the cause of civil rights in America, and he had Ehrlich's full support."

Hug reacted by saying, "I will not dignify that with a response."

Baltimore Mayor Martin O'Malley and Montgomery County Executive Douglas M. Duncan, who are seeking the Democratic nomination for governor, have accused Ehrlich of using his influence to harm the NAACP.

When asked to respond to the criticism, Ehrlich said, "What is there to respond to?"

Kweisi Mfume, a former president and CEO of the NAACP who has expressed frustration at the IRS audit, said yesterday that elected officials should choose carefully which complaints they pursue. Mfume, a former Democratic congressman who is now running for U.S. Senate, added that the NAACP was right to make the IRS documents public.

"I don't know if I can judge the governor's actions," he said. "But in hindsight, it, coupled with so many other public officials who were pressuring the IRS to investigate the NAACP, indicates to the observer that there was a pattern of political persecution under way."

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