Gubernatorial two-step

May 23, 2006

At least Maryland's governor is reliable: When he's caught in controversy, you can count on him to dance around the topic - and then blame the media.

The case of the NAACP tax audit is a perfect example. Republicans are steamed about the nonprofit civil rights organization's Democratic sympathies. In 2000, Maryland's top GOP fundraiser, Richard E. Hug, was among those asking the Internal Revenue Service to investigate the NAACP's tax-exempt status. In early 2001, Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., then a congressman, wrote a follow-up letter to the IRS urging them to respond.

Now the NAACP is stuck in an audit that officials believe is little more than a partisan attack. Mr. Ehrlich's letter was disclosed last week. And how did the governor defend his role in this? He says it was just a routine, nonideological constituent service.

Of course, such an explanation requires a hefty suspension of disbelief. First we must believe Mr. Hug (who never lived in Mr. Ehrlich's district) is an average constituent. Then we have to see no political purpose in an IRS audit of the NAACP. (Note: Mr. Ehrlich's favorite rumor-mongering henchman, Joseph F. "Prince of Darkness" Steffen Jr., handled the matter for him). Ouch.

It would be one thing for the governor to say he had legitimate concerns about the NAACP's political activities at the time. Or he might even say he made a mistake and regrets it. But he prefers the sidestep and expects voters to believe he treated the matter the same as a missing Social Security check.

No doubt Mr. Ehrlich's next move will be to blame the whole thing on reporters. That's how he responded when the Maryland Public Service Commission chairman was caught sending virtual mash notes to a utility lobbyist. Whether the subject is land deals, state employee firings or most anything that's politically embarrassing, Mr. Ehrlich likes to do-si-do and then denounce. The gubernatorial shuffle is nothing if not consistent.

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