Campaigns elicit queries that beg for answers

political notebook

October 22, 2006|By Larry Carson

Every hotly contested election spawns a few whispers - sometimes petty questions that float just beneath the surface of public debate - that arouse great interest among campaign stalwarts.

For example, was Democrat Ken Ulman "Director of the Board of Public Works and Special Projects," as he claims, or a less exalted staffer when he worked in the late 1990s for Gov. Parris N. Glendening?

Is C. Stephen Wallis, the independent candidate for county executive, really a conservative Republican in disguise?

Does Republican Christopher J. Merdon's private job as a regional vice president for business development with giant Dallas-based Affiliated Computer Services Inc. give him the edge on administrative experience, as he often claims? Or is he more valuable for his political connections among former Howard Republican elected officials who now run several state departments?

Questions about Ulman's former job title arose in a local computer blog run by David Keelan, a Republican activist. Keelan said he could not find any published reference in state records to Ulman's grand-sounding title, though there is a reference to Ulman as a "staff liaison" to the powerful board, made up of Maryland's governor, state comptroller and treasurer.

"I think he's inflating his title" to make the job seem more important, Keelan said.

Ulman and Glendening say the title is accurate. Ulman produced his former business card, which says "Kenneth S. Ulman, Director Board of Public Works and Special Projects."

Glendening said Ulman's title was used internally for whoever had the job of reviewing the board's agenda of state contracts before votes on them and for flagging items the governor might want to examine. Ulman, then a young lawyer, also was secretary to the governor's Cabinet.

"I can tell you he was there and did his job," Glendening said.

Ulman said he regards the questioning of his old job title as a Republican attack and labeled it "grasping at straws" and "politics at its worst."

Wallis, the principal of Harper's Choice Middle school in Columbia, is running a grassroots campaign for executive, disdaining the partisan bickering that has frequently erupted between council Democrats and Republicans.

But before Wallis became a registered independent on May 16, he was a Republican. In 1998, he worked on conservative Republican Ellen R. Sauerbrey's gubernatorial campaign task force on education, he said. Two years later, he volunteered in George W. Bush's Maryland campaign, he confirmed.

"Sauerbrey contacted me because of my books and my testimony before Congress" said Wallis, who wrote extensively in the 1990s about his views on the importance of school discipline. "I'm moderate to conservative. It depends on the issues." He said he has voted for Democrats on occasion, too.

Merdon has often mentioned his private job as a way to assert that he has more administrative and supervisory experience than Ulman, who is an attorney in private life.

But at a forum in March, Ulman shot back that he considers Merdon a lobbyist for his company, ACS, a global Fortune 500 company with 55,000 employees and multiple state contracts. The company has the contract for EZ Pass, the electronic toll device that helps speed traffic along East Coast interstates.

After questions about his job title began circulating, Ulman countered by wondering whether Merdon was hired more for "his contacts with the Republican administration" of Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich, Jr. than for his executive ability.

For example, former Howard Del. Robert L. Flanagan is secretary of the Department of Transportation, Maryland Transportation Authority director Trent Kittleman is the widow of the late Howard state Sen. Robert H. Kittleman, and former Howard state Sen. Christopher J. McCabe is secretary of the state Department of Human Services. All three are Republicans.

Merdon said he is not a registered lobbyist with the state and has never lobbied any state officials on his company's behalf.

"My job before the campaign was to oversee all of our [Maryland] accounts. We do state contracts. Since the campaign [began] I moved into the business development role," he said, adding that his firm does about $100 million in business annually with a variety of agencies in state government.

Flanagan said Merdon called him once, in March 2005, to see whether a Maryland Transportation Authority vote was scheduled on his company's EZPass contract. The authority's agenda had been public at the time of the call, Flanagan said.

Merdon has attended state Board of Public Works meetings for ACS, including one June 21 when the board approved a $110 million computer services contract for ACS - the only bidder - with the state Department of Human Resources.

"I'm not going to sit here to prove or disprove things the other campaign is saying. I am not a registered lobbyist. If I was engaging in lobbying activity and not registered, it would be illegal," Merdon said, labeling Ulman's accusation "ridiculous."

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