Ethics complaint to target Ehrlich lawyer

Opponents of Dundalk LNG plant say he lobbied for dredging funding without registering

May 26, 2006|By ANDREW A. GREEN | ANDREW A. GREEN,SUN REPORTER

Opponents of a liquefied natural gas facility in Dundalk said yesterday that they would file an ethics complaint against Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr.'s personal lawyer, accusing him of lobbying without registering and violating the state ban on fundraising by a lobbyist.

The LNG Opposition Team's complaint against attorney David B. Hamilton, written in response to a Washington Post article, alleges that he met with legislators and other state officials in a successful effort to get a $150,000 grant for dredging necessary to construct the proposed LNG terminal.

Bart S. Fisher, an attorney for the group, wrote in a letter to the state Ethics Commission that Hamilton's attendance at meetings designed to influence legislative and executive action clearly meets the legal definition of lobbying.

The law requires lobbyists to register with the ethics commission and bars them from political fundraising. Hamilton heads the government relations practice of the Baltimore law firm Ober/Kaler - where Ehrlich once practiced - and is a member of the governor's campaign finance committee.

"We're concerned that the exercises take place in the open and that the lobbying that takes place is properly accounted for," said Bart S. Fisher, a Washington attorney representing the LNG Opposition Team, part of the Greater Dundalk Alliance, a community watchdog group.

"We need to know who the other side is talking to, so we can talk to them, too," Fisher said. "We're up against mighty corporate forces. We're at least entitled to fairness in the process."

Hamilton did not respond to phone messages yesterday.

His role in the effort to build the LNG plant has the potential to be politically significant. Eastern Baltimore County is a solid base of support for Ehrlich, dating to his days in Congress, but members of the community have expressed strong opposition to the LNG plant, which residents fear could be unsafe or a target for terrorists.

Ehrlich spokesman Henry Fawell said yesterday that the governor has opposed the LNG plant and will continue to do so. But activists and elected officials from Dundalk said Hamilton's activities make them wonder just how hard the governor has been working against the plant.

"I don't know what actually he's done," said County Councilman John Olszewski Sr., a Dundalk Democrat, referring to the governor, adding that he was concerned that Hamilton was "supposedly lobbying for ... the liquefied natural gas facility at the same time the governor is supposed to be against it."

Sen. Norman R. Stone, a Dundalk Democrat, sponsored a bill to stop the LNG plant, but it failed in this year's legislative session. He said he faced stiff opposition from lobbyists hired by the company trying to build the plant but got no help from the administration.

"I saw a memo from him that said this is a non-starter," Stone said of Ehrlich. "Well, that didn't happen. It started."

Hamilton is a frequent visitor to the State House and attendee at Ehrlich political events. He represented Ehrlich in The Sun's unsuccessful lawsuit to end the governor's ban on government officials speaking to two of the paper's journalists.

Fawell said Hamilton "did not receive a dime" from the Sun litigation and has not been paid by the state for any of his other activities. Ehrlich has called Hamilton "my pro-bono lawyer" and once said on WBAL-AM that he hopes Hamilton will get paid for his activities at some point.

Ehrlich's 2005 financial disclosure form with the ethics commission does not list the value of Hamilton's services either under the section for gifts received by the governor or for debts he owes.

Last week, Hamilton told the Post in an interview that he is careful to obey state ethics laws and confines his activities in Annapolis to the role of a lawyer, not a lobbyist.

State law requires anyone who "for the purpose of influencing any legislative action" communicates "with an official or employee of the Legislative Branch or Executive Branch in the presence of that official or employee" to register as a lobbyist. Violations can be punished with up to a year of jail time and fines of as much as $10,000.

Hamilton told the Post that all activities that constitute lobbying are handled by longtime Annapolis lobbyist J. William Pitcher. Ethics commission records show that Pitcher is registered to lobby on behalf of AES Sparrows Point LNG, the Arlington, Va., company trying to build the plant. He is not registered to represent Barletta Willis, the company that holds the dredging permit and received the $150,000 state grant.

"The governor has known David for 24 years," Fawell said. "The governor believes he has always conducted himself in an ethical manner."

andy.green@baltsun.com

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