Ehrlich blasts O'Malley labor department

Democrat skewed labor report message for political gain, former Republican governor says

September 27, 2010|By Annie Linskey, The Baltimore Sun

Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. accused the O'Malley administration Monday of meddling with state labor department operations for political gain, releasing documents that illustrate how employees removed a downbeat jobs assessment from their website after what workers said was pressure "from the top."

The documents, including e-mails obtained by Republicans through a public information request, show labor department officials scrambling to expunge an internal report discussing lackluster employment growth in July at the same time Gov. Martin O'Malley, a Democrat seeking re-election, was trying to deliver a more upbeat assessment. Ehrlich, the Republican campaigning to get his old job back as governor, highlighted the e-mails at a news conference billed as a discussion of "government incompetence" under O'Malley.

The charge was the latest example of Ehrlich's increasingly aggressive stance as the contest between the two longtime rivals enters its final weeks.

Ehrlich unleashed his first negative ad of the campaign on Friday, and the Republican Governors Association last week dumped money into the state to fund a separate attack.

"We have very different views and very different records and obviously there is going to be conflict," Ehrlich said Monday. "As long as it is on the issues, that is what campaigns are all about."

Rick Abbruzzese, an O'Malley campaign spokesman, called Ehrlich's news conference an "embarrassing political stunt" that was part of a "desperate attempt to mislead voters about his own record."

The O'Malley campaign noted that Maryland employers have added 33,000 jobs between January and August — the best first eight months of a year since 2000.

But the last two monthly reports show that the state leeched jobs, reversing a trend that O'Malley had been promoting on the campaign trail.

In August, a bleak jobs report with a headline "Maryland's Market Stalls During July" was briefly posted on the website of the state Department of Labor, Licensing and Regulation. It was quickly removed, and the department's head, Alexander M. Sanchez, described it as an internal document that should not have been made public.

The incident has provided Ehrlich an opportunity to escalate criticism not only of O'Malley's stewardship of the state's economy, but of how the governor's aides have packaged information of Maryland's economic health.

The labor department is a frequent target of Ehrlich's wrath, who characterizes it as a "broken" bureaucracy that is too much "sheriff" and not enough "partner" for small businesses.

He said Monday that the removal of the jobs report was "symbolic" of an environment hostile to business.

Del. Anthony O'Donnell, the House Republican leader from Southern Maryland, and his Senate counterpart, Sen. Allan Kittleman of Howard County, said Monday they would like to see a legislative inquiry into how the agency distributes public information.

"I want to tell you I'm angry," Kittleman said. "Live on your record. Be held accountable on your record."

House Speaker Michael E. Busch, though, dismissed the call for an investigation as an election-season stunt. "Let me get this right," he said. "They used a political forum to criticize O'Malley for politicizing an agency?"

The e-mails released Monday track communication among labor department workers as they scrambled to remove the July assessment. The report included a bullet point which said the state was seeing "declining consumer confidence and spending" and "lackluster hiring at the national level" — and concluded that "Maryland's economic recovery faltered" in July.

In one electronic message, a department employee called the internal report "diametrically opposed" to the "eventually-approved messaging" that was reviewed and sanctioned by high-level administration officials.

The report was posted Aug. 20, and was online long enough for a Republican party staffer to notice that it was markedly different in tone from the upbeat words O'Malley was using to describe the state's economic condition.

Republicans sent out a news release about the discrepancy, and the resulting media inquiries — including from The Baltimore Sun and Washington Post — caused internal recriminations.

Writing to his communications director at 3:01 p.m. Aug. 20, Sanchez asked: "Is it down? Call me as soon as we know who posted outrageous info on the site." Six minutes later, communications director Bernie Kohn, a former business and special projects editor at The Sun, replied: "It is down."

Kohn then e-mailed several other staffers: "Are we sure that removing that post removed all traces of it that anyone could pull up on a search engine? Whatever we can do to make it disappear, we need to do it. That's coming straight from the top."

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