The state Ethics Commission has cleared Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr.'s personal lawyer of wrongdoing, dismissing a complaint that meetings he arranged with top officials on behalf of his clients constituted illegal, unregistered lobbying.
Attorney David Hamilton, who heads the government relations practice at the governor's former law firm, Ober/Kaler, attended meetings between clients who had business with the state and Ehrlich and other administration officials, according to appointment calendars released under Maryland's Public Information Act. Hamilton is not registered with the state as a lobbyist.
Ethics Commission Executive Director Suzanne Fox said yesterday that the commission determined that complaints about Hamilton's conduct did not warrant further investigation. Common Cause Maryland and another group had argued that Hamilton had improperly engaged in lobbying.
Under normal circumstances, the commission does not disclose the subjects of its inquiries unless it finds a violation and issues a corrective order. In this case, she said, Hamilton signed a release allowing her to confirm that the commission had dropped its inquiry. Fox said confidentiality rules prohibit her from providing more details.
Ehrlich spokesman Henry Fawell said the governor is not surprised by the commission's decision.
"David has always conducted himself in the highest ethical manner," Fawell said.
Bobbie Walton, executive director of Common Cause Maryland, a public ethics watchdog group, said that if Hamilton's conduct isn't against the law, it should be. "It may be legal, but it's not ethical," she said.
State law requires lobbyists to register with the state and disclose details of their practices, including the identity of their clients, how much they are paid and the issues on which they advocate. Hamilton is not registered on behalf of any clients which means he, unlike registered lobbyists, is not prohibited from raising money for political candidates. He is a member of the Ehrlich campaign's finance committee.
Walton said she plans to meet with ethics commission members to discuss the parameters of the law. She said she would propose changes if necessary to ensure that all those who attempt to influence government action are subject to registration requirements.
Hamilton was out of town yesterday and could not be reached for comment. He has not spoken publicly since questions about his activities were first reported in The Washington Post, but at the time, he said he attended the meetings in his capacity as a lawyer representing his clients on legal issues, not as a lobbyist.
The Web site for Ober/Kaler's government relations practice says the firm has established a partnership with longtime Annapolis lobbyist J. William Pitcher, who is registered with the state. Hamilton told the Post that he refers all lobbying activity on behalf of his clients to Pitcher.
Hamilton still faces questions about his advocacy on behalf of a client who is pushing for a controversial liquified natural gas terminal to be built near Dundalk. County records show that Hamilton met with top aides to County Executive James T. Smith Jr. to promote the project and attempted to soften Smith's public opposition to it.
A Dundalk group opposed to the LNG terminal joined Common Cause in filing ethics complaints at the state and Baltimore County ethics commissions. Baltimore County has a lobbyist registration law similar to the state's.
Walton said the county ethics complaint is still under investigation. She said she believes she has a stronger case there because there is more evidence of his conduct with local officials than with the Ehrlich administration.