Ehrlich ally promoted LNG plant in Dundalk

Lawyer met with county to try to soften officials' opposition

June 07, 2006|By ANDREW A. GREEN | ANDREW A. GREEN,SUN REPORTER

Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr.'s personal lawyer met with Baltimore County officials to promote the development of a liquefied natural gas terminal in Sparrows Point and attempted to soften County Executive James T. Smith Jr.'s public opposition to the plan, documents released yesterday show.

Ehrlich, who opposes the LNG facility, has publicly defended his lawyer and longtime friend, David Hamilton, saying during an appearance on WBAL radio last month that Hamilton "does not represent this firm that wants to put an LNG plant in Dundalk."

But records released by Baltimore County under the Maryland Public Information Act show that Hamilton met Feb. 24 with county economic development director David Iannucci and Smith aide Damian O'Doherty to support the project on behalf of his client, Barletta Willis LLC, which owns the shipyard where Virginia-based AES Corp. wants to put the LNG plant.

The documents also show that Hamilton told officials that Barletta Willis had a strong financial stake in seeing the LNG plant built and was working hand-in-hand with AES.

In the February meeting, according to Iannucci's notes, Hamilton and Barletta Willis General Counsel John Bulman argued that the LNG plant is "fundamental to B-W redevelopment plan" and that without it, the "whole shipyard may fail."

"Dundalk -- irrational, NIMBY," the notes read, using the abbreviation for the term "not in my backyard."

"BAD meeting!!" Iannucci wrote at the bottom of the page.

Hamilton and Ehrlich have been friendly for more than two decades and practiced law together at Ober/Kaler. After the governor's election, Hamilton founded the firm's government relations practice, but has never registered as a lobbyist in Annapolis. Registered lobbyists are prohibited from raising campaign funds for politicians; Hamilton is a member of the governor's campaign finance committee.

In a May 27 appearance on Stateline with the Governor on WBAL radio, Ehrlich decried reports of Hamilton's alleged lobbying on the LNG issue as "simple misstatement of fact" and said the lawyer did not represent the company looking to bring the terminal to the shipyard.

Ehrlich spokesman Henry Fawell said the governor was talking about AES, not Barletta Willis.

"He represents Barletta Willis, whereas AES is the company that is planning to develop the LNG facility," Fawell said. "Barletta Willis simply owns the property."

Within hours after his meeting with O'Doherty and Iannucci, Hamilton sent an e-mail to O'Doherty to try to soften Smith's public opposition to the plant.

He sent the text of a story from the Dundalk Eagle in which Ehrlich is quoted as saying he is "not happy" about the project and concerned "about the safety of transportation and residential areas" nearby. In the article, the governor cautions against jumping to conclusions and says the issue is one for federal authorities to decide.

Hamilton wrote to O'Doherty: "Insofar as opposition goes, these are the kind of judicious, moderated comments that we request the County Executive to consider, if he is inclined to speak publicly on the subject. Of course, you understand that we hope for no comments and, pursuant to our meeting today, we will relay information to AES promptly so that AES may address this issue with you and/or the county executive as soon as possible."

In another e-mail to O'Doherty a month later, Hamilton suggests that Smith not testify in a legislative hearing on a bill that would have effectively blocked the project.

Smith has vocally opposed the project through news conferences and letters to state and federal officials. He and several members of his Cabinet testified against the project at a Federal Energy Regulatory Commission hearing Monday night. Ehrlich also testified against the project.

Hamilton did not return phone messages yesterday and has not commented publicly on his activities since his involvement in the issue was first reported by The Washington Post.

He is the subject of a state ethics complaint by opponents of the LNG terminal who allege that he lobbied state officials without registering. They also say he violated a state ban on political fundraising by lobbyists.

State law defines a lobbyist as someone 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."

Anyone who "knowingly and willfully" violates the statute can be found guilty of a misdemeanor, jailed for up to a year and fined $10,000.

Baltimore County also has a local law requiring lobbyist registration. Hamilton is not registered as a lobbyist in Baltimore County. The county code says that a person who "knowingly and willfully" violates the lobbying statute is guilty of a misdemeanor and may be punished with a fine of up to $1,000, imprisonment for up to 90 days, or both. Violators may also be subject to civil penalties, including fines of up to $1,000 per violation.

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