Culture of chumminess

August 21, 2006

When candidate Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. campaigned for the governor's office in 2002, he vowed to clean up the "culture of corruption" that he said had infested the State House. It actually wasn't completely clear what he was talking about, but since then he's done a pretty good job of upholding another tradition of state politics - the culture of chumminess.

Case in point: David B. Hamilton has so much private access to the governor's ear that the watchdog group Common Cause Maryland, sensing that Mr. Hamilton was acting as a lobbyist without having registered as one, filed a complaint against him with the state ethics commission. Before he was elected to Congress, Mr. Ehrlich worked with Mr. Hamilton at the law firm now known as Ober Kaler. The two became fast friends, and Mr. Hamilton is frequently at the governor's side - sometimes in the company of law firm clients - where you can bet the conversations have little to do with the price of a ballpark beer.

Mr. Hamilton insists that he acts only as his clients' lawyer, and any legislative or policy arm-twisting on their behalf is turned over to registered lobbyist J. William Pitcher, with whom his firm has a "strategic alliance." Mr. Hamilton chairs the government relations practice at Ober Kaler and, during the 2002 gubernatorial campaign, oversaw his friend's finance committee.

So, when is a lawyer who introduces clients to an elected official not a lobbyist? When he's a facilitator. That's the conclusion we draw following the ethics commission's dismissal of the complaint against Mr. Hamilton, whose exchanges with the governor apparently fell short of directly influencing regulations or executive orders, which are illegal for an unregistered lobbyist.

Although the Maryland Public Ethics Law purports to outlaw "improper influence or even the appearance of improper influence" in state business, its rather narrow description of lobbying activity does not prohibit chumminess among the State House crowd, even to the degree that exists between Mr. Ehrlich and Mr. Hamilton. This distinction is probably lost on the public; the legislature should reconsider this loophole when it reconvenes.

Mr. Hamilton's closeness to the governor and the complaint filed against him at the state level - a related complaint remains active in Baltimore County - raise the question: Why doesn't he just go ahead and register as a lobbyist? We're sure Mr. Hamilton, who once was president of a group named The Loophole Law Club, knows the answer. Lobbyists can't raise money for candidates.

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