State Digest


February 23, 2007

Officials consider ban on political automated calls

Maryland lawmakers are considering getting rid of political candidates' exemption from the do-not-call registry.

Politicians are exempt from the rules that govern businesses when it comes to automated calls. Such calls have increased in recent campaign seasons because they cost less than placing phone calls in person.

Some voters felt bombarded by the calls last fall or wondered why they were getting them when they had put their home numbers on a do-not-call list. Bills being considered in both chambers of the Maryland legislature this term would end the exemption for political calls.

"People found this annoying beyond a level of tolerance," said Del. Dan K. Morhaim, a Baltimore County Democrat who sponsored the House bill. A House committee began work yesterday on the bill, and a similar version comes up for Senate review next week.

Other states are considering similar bills. Missouri's Senate voted Tuesday to add automated calls to a state no-call list. In Montana, politicians are restricted in the same way telemarketers are and can be fined up to $2,500 for making improper automated calls.

It is far from certain whether Maryland lawmakers will put themselves under the same rules that bind commercial companies. Some think the automated calls are effective, and both parties use them.

Another advantage of the calls, from the politicians' point of view, is that they are so cheap they can mitigate differences in campaign funds. Only campaigns with a big bankroll can buy television ads.

The bill would exempt government agencies from the do-not-call requirements, allowing them to place calls in emergencies or to inform people about school closings, for example.

Morhaim said his bill could raise freedom-of-speech questions, but he said politicians don't have any more right to free speech than a telemarketer does.

"I don't think political free speech is a higher standard than regular free speech," Morhaim said. But he conceded that a nonbinding decision by the state attorney general raised questions about whether the law would withstand a court challenge.

Automated calls are so popular with politicians that they are unlikely to go away, said Jerry Dorchuck, owner of Political Marketing Strategies in Jenkintown, Pa. His company can send 175,000 calls an hour for political campaigns.

In November, as the election approached, "I got 17 or 18 automated calls myself," Dorchuck said. But he said a ban is unnecessary.

"I'm under the belief that if you don't like it, just hang up the phone," Dorchuck said.

Associated Press


Report says gunman started mall blaze, chose not to escape

A gunman who died in a strip-mall fire after shooting at police started the blaze with a lighter or match in a liquor store's back room, investigators concluded yesterday.

James C. Douglas, 29, could have escaped the fire but chose not to and died of smoke inhalation, Lt. Thomas Chase said.

The reports by the Frederick Police Department and the Maryland State Fire Marshal ended their investigation into the fire Monday that destroyed the two-story Antietam Village Center in Frederick and 11 businesses, including the liquor store where the incident began.

Chase said authorities don't know why Douglas locked himself in the store after ordering the owner to leave, why he set the fire and why he didn't flee the flames.

Douglas' remains were found Tuesday and identified Wednesday. Investigators also recovered a .25-caliber handgun from the liquor store, Chase said.

Associated Press

Frederick County

Man who married mistress to get job perks gets a year for bigamy

A man who married his mistress so that his employer would pay her moving expenses has been sentenced to a year in jail for bigamy.

William A. Moats, 36, of Hagerstown said an addiction to illegal drugs contributed to his decision to marry Karen E. Holder on Jan. 3, 2003, less than four months after he married Sandra L. Clipp. Moats and Clipp have since divorced.

During a hearing in Frederick County Circuit Court on Wednesday, Assistant Public Defender Stephen Musselman said the lure of an out-of-state job played a part in Moats' case. The company wouldn't pay for Holder's share of the moving expenses unless she was married to Moats, Musselman said.

Moats pleaded guilty Feb. 5 to one count of bigamy.

Associated Press


Bill would ban explicit decorations on vehicles

Fake bull testicles and other anatomically explicit vehicle decorations would be banned from Maryland roads under a bill pending in the state legislature.

The measure was filed Monday by Del. LeRoy E. Myers Jr., a Washington County Republican who says children shouldn't be exposed to such decorations dangling from pickup truck trailer hitches. The bill also would ban depictions of naked human breasts, buttocks or genitals, with offenses punishable by fines of up to $500.

The American Civil Liberties Union objected to Myers' bill.

Associated Press

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