Gansler sets his sights on state's polluters

He'll take activist approach, new Md. attorney general says

January 03, 2007|By Jennifer Skalka | Jennifer Skalka,Sun reporter

Maryland Attorney General Douglas F. Gansler pledged yesterday to do battle with those who spoil the environment, signaling a more aggressive approach for an agency led for two decades by the steady J. Joseph Curran Jr.

"We're going to wage an all-out assault on those who pollute our air and our water and pollute the Chesapeake Bay," Gansler said during his midday swearing-in ceremony in the state Senate chamber in Annapolis.

Gansler said in an interview that he plans to bring an activist bent to the state's top legal job, modeling himself after former New York state Attorney General Eliot Spitzer, whose campaign against corporate corruption propelled him into the governor's office.

Spitzer "did two things: He prosecuted criminals in the securities industry but also changed the culture and the way in which the securities industry operates," said Gansler, a 44-year-old former federal prosecutor and the outgoing Montgomery County state's attorney.

"I think we can do much the same in terms of the environment here by prosecuting the most egregious polluters and also change the culture and the way in which we treat the Chesapeake Bay."

Relations between Curran and Republican Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich have been tense throughout the governor's four-year term. The Ehrlich administration was often criticized by environmentalists for laxness in enforcing pollution laws, and in 2005 Ehrlich prevented Curran from joining a multistate lawsuit challenging federal rules exempting coal-fired power plants from tough mercury pollution-control requirements.

That kind of tension could soon be a thing of the past as two other newly elected statewide leaders take office. Gov.-elect Martin O'Malley will be inaugurated Jan. 17, followed by Comptroller-elect Peter Franchot. All are Democrats, as is a sizable majority of the legislature.

Gansler's self-confidence, assertiveness and steady political rise were noted yesterday.

Two of his former bosses said no one is ever really in charge of Gansler, no matter what an organization's flow chart might indicate.

"I was more a person who could make respectful suggestions to him and then stand back," said Eric H. Holder Jr., former deputy U.S. attorney general.

John F. McAuliffe, a former Maryland Court of Appeals judge for whom Gansler clerked, said he considers Gansler a fierce competitor, noting that "he hits his five iron about as far as we hit our drives."

"Stay around him for a while and you will become tired trying to keep up," McAuliffe said. "Doug has a great deal of self-confidence to go with his energy and intelligence and enthusiasm, and some may misinterpret these traits. To me, however, I like a lot of self-confidence in my surgeons and my attorneys, and, therefore, in my attorneys general."

Gansler's swearing-in was emceed by his father, Jacques, a former undersecretary at the U.S. Department of Defense who appeared to choke back tears several times during the program.

He said he is proud that his son has chosen a career in public service despite several "huge disincentives," including rubber chicken dinners, the prying news media and a relatively modest salary. (The attorney general earns about $125,000 yearly).

"I'm so pleased that my son is willing to take that kind of responsibility on," Jacques Gansler said as the attorney general's mother, sister, wife and two sons watched from the Senate floor.

Joining a chamber packed with Gansler's friends and associates, a number of key state officials stopped in, including House Speaker Michael E. Busch and Franchot. Ehrlich administered the oath. Former U.S. Sen. Joseph D. Tydings and Curran wished Gansler well.

Curran said that in clearing out his office, he found a note Gansler had written to him in 1991 praising him for a job well done.

"I'm going to keep that letter," Curran said. "I'm going to frame it. He said nice things about me. And I hope you remember those nice things."

As Montgomery's state's attorney, Gansler prosecuted the 2002 sniper case in Maryland even though Lee Boyd Malvo and John Allen Muhammad had been convicted in Virginia. He also prosecuted the 1999 road rage case against boxer Mike Tyson.

During his remarks, Gansler, a graduate of Yale University and the University of Virginia School of Law, referred briefly to the rift between him and state Democratic Party leaders, some of whom endorsed his primary opponents.

"I'm not exactly the poster boy of the Democratic establishment, so for Speaker Busch to be here is really meaningful for me," he said.

Later, Gansler, who lives in Bethesda, said he intends to reach out to party leaders. The friction results from a perception that he is "younger and relatively aggressive," he said. But he shrugged off a question about that tension. He also said he plans to keep many of Curran's lawyers while infusing the office with new energy.

"Everybody's staying," he said. "No one's being fired."

With the environment as his top priority, Gansler said he stands by his campaign promise to assess the health of the state's waterways mile by mile, and he vowed to enforce air pollution guidelines governing the state's coal-fired power plants. And he said he would go a step further.

"I think we ought to reassess the levels that we permit of pollution," he said.

Emissions from the coal-fired power plants disproportionately affect poorer residents and African-Americans, Gansler said, calling enforcement "an environmental civil rights issue."

Gansler also said that the health of the Chesapeake Bay is at a crossroads and that industry, including the state's farms, must heed state pollution laws.

"If we don't address the problem, we'll lose the Chesapeake Bay forever," he said.

jennifer.skalka@baltsun.com

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