All the governor's men

June 12, 2006

It's sad that a touchstone for Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr.'s time in office remains his appealing campaign promise to undo, as he put it, the "culture of corruption" in Annapolis, the cozy club of cronyism that for decades has held sway in Maryland's capital under essentially one-party rule by the state's Democrats.

The reason that it's sad is that, in one case after another over the past three years, the governor's pals have crossed ethical lines when it comes to fundraising or lobbying.

In 2004, the governor's top fundraiser, University System of Maryland Regent Richard E. Hug, and other administration operatives were found to have set up a nonprofit to solicit big bucks from gambling interests for a pro-slots "public policy" campaign.

More recently, the regents' chairman, David H. Nevins, helped to set up high-level meetings in Annapolis for his employer, Constellation Energy, while claiming he wasn't lobbying.

Another regent and Ehrlich pal, former Gov. Marvin Mandel, was lobbying for a client without registering as a lobbyist.

Meanwhile, Mr. Ehrlich's appointed Public Service Commission chairman, Kenneth D. Schisler, has been playing e-mail footsie with a top utility industry lobbyist.

And now comes David Hamilton, the governor's so-called personal attorney.

He heads his firm's government relations practice but says he's lawyering, not lobbying, leaving the task of influencing government to colleagues and himself free to operate in an unregulated manner.

Mr. Hamilton, it turns out, has been prodding Baltimore County officials pretty hard to approve a liquefied natural gas terminal near the port of Baltimore that many residents oppose. A complaint has been filed with the state Ethics Commission that seems worthy of serious investigation.

Mr. Ehrlich's supporters note that the governor is opposed to the LNG project. But the point is, both the state and Baltimore County require lobbyists to register, and the state bars them from fundraising.

And here's the larger point: It's fine to declare, as Mr. Ehrlich's team has done, that there's a new sheriff in town - that Democrats for the first time in decades, ought to get used to sharing power in a two-party state. But then to just be playing the same old game in which fundraising, cronyism and influence overlap with a new set of players - well, that's just sad.

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