Focusing on the job, not the credit

Attorney General Douglas F. Gansler has surprised many in Maryland with his quiet, team-player approach in office

September 09, 2007|By Jennifer Skalka | Jennifer Skalka,Sun reporter

OCEAN CITY -- Attorney General Douglas F. Gansler did something unusual here recently for any politician, but for him especially. He admitted defeat.

Speaking on a panel exploring the state's growing gang problem, Gansler said that a related bill he backed during the past legislative session had been "gutted" by lawmakers, many of whom happened to be defense attorneys.

"It's a little bit like asking the elephants to pass the peanuts," Gansler joked during a meeting at the Maryland Association of Counties conference.

Then Gansler vowed to work with the limited bill, not to fight to further tweak it next session, and he pledged to create a new statewide gang member registry.

Known during eight years as Montgomery County state's attorney for his ready humor and enthusiastic self-promotion, Gansler was as apt to show up on CNN as he was in a courtroom during the Washington-area sniper trial or when he prosecuted boxer Mike Tyson. Since taking office in January, however, the Democrat has impressed other state officials by trying to be more of a team player. They see Gansler undergoing a stylistic metamorphosis.

"I think so far Doug has been pretty candid, and I would say somewhat humble, in the fact that the job is in many respects much broader than he expected when he ran for office," said House Speaker Michael E. Busch, an Anne Arundel County Democrat.

Anti-gang efforts

He worked behind the scenes to build support for the anti-gang legislation, championed more publicly by Gov. Martin O'Malley and state Democratic lawmakers. He testified with little fanfare for a bill to prevent voter intimidation pushed by Maryland Sen. Benjamin L. Cardin. And despite being a death-penalty proponent, he kept largely mum when the governor lobbied earlier this year for repeal.

"I don't have the sense that he's been ruffling any feathers per se," said Prince George's County State's Attorney Glenn F. Ivey, a Democrat. "From my perspective at least, he's been very focused on the job and law enforcement in general."

Overall, Gansler manages a department of about 800 workers, 427 of whom are attorneys. His budget for the fiscal year that began July 1 is $27.6 million.

Maryland's attorney general serves as legal counsel to the governor, the General Assembly, the state judiciary and to most state agencies. He reviews proposed administrative rules and regulations before they can go into effect. Gansler, 44, also enforces Maryland's antitrust, consumer protection and securities laws, and conducts criminal prosecutions and appeals. However, Gansler can't sue on the state's behalf without the governor's permission.

In addition to gang violence, Gansler has begun to burrow into issues such as corporate malfeasance and the ethics of the student loan industry. He also created a new office of civil rights.

Gansler hasn't suffered an exodus of lawyers loyal to his well-liked and mild-mannered predecessor, fellow Democrat J. Joseph Curran Jr., who stepped down last year after two decades in office.

Relations between Curran, who is O'Malley's father-in-law, and former Republican Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. were strained. Ehrlich regularly complained that he needed a new lawyer, a mantra that became a 2006 campaign trail standard.

But it's no longer the attorney general who is causing friction in the ranks of top state officials.

"Most of the newspaper and television attention seems to be with Peter [Franchot]," Curran said of the outspoken, activist state comptroller. "And Doug's just doing his job. And Martin's just doing his job. They seem to be getting along OK."

Environmental focus

Gansler has clearly signaled a new approach on environmental issues as well.

Environmentalists criticized Ehrlich for failing to enforce 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. Gansler filed a motion allowing Maryland to join the mercury rules lawsuit this year.

While Gansler has set his sights on environmental polluters - likening his intention to crusade against them to former New York Attorney Gen. Eliot Spitzer's prosecution of corporate crooks, and former Mississippi Attorney General Mike Moore's battle against big tobacco - he hasn't launched an all-out campaign yet to target those sullying the Chesapeake Bay. But he has started to push his attorneys, in coordination with the Maryland Department of the Environment, to fine companies violating air pollution and bay critical-area laws.

For example, Constellation Energy had to pay $100,000 for violations at three coal-fired power plants. Another company, Oakland-based Mettiki Coal, was fined $150,000 and was reported to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency for "violating state air pollution requirements," Gansler's office said.

True to his campaign promise, Gansler has shown he'll even level legal action against local farms if they're found to be dirtying state waters.

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