- Bob Ehrlich is making a comeback bid for governor, but his activities since leaving Annapolis have become an issue. (Photo: Associated Press)
It’s the most effective epithet in American politics: lobbyist. The word conjures notions of backroom deals, huge paydays and screwed taxpayers. With voter anger at the establishment running high, politicians nationally are unafraid to drop the L-bomb on their opponents. (John McCain called his primary opponent a lobbyist. His opponent promptly returned the favor.)
Joining this club is Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley, who has gone all out to portray Bob Ehrlich as an insider with ties to special interests in Washington and Annapolis.
In two radio ads that aired in Baltimore and on the Eastern Shore, O’Malley’s campaign claimed that Ehrlich worked as a lobbyist while he was leading the Baltimore office of Womble Carlyle Sandridge & Rice, a gargantuan law firm based in North Carolina. Ehrlich opened the firm’s Baltimore’s office shortly after O’Malley ousted him from the governor’s mansion in 2006. He took a leave from the firm to run for governor.
In one of the two ads, Ehrlich is heard repeatedly echoing Sarah Palin’s ‘Drill, Baby, Drill’ line: “As oil coats the Gulf Coast, that's the voice of Big Oil lobbyist Bob Ehrlich.” (The Maryland Democratic Party recently released a video hitting on similar themes, and its BobEhrlich.org parody website includes a section devoted to Ehrlich's alleged lobbying.)
Another spot, titled “Fantasy Land II,” articulates the slam more directly: Robert Ehrlich was a “lobbyist” whose firm represented “big oil, big tobacco and even banks seeking billions in bailouts.”
Leaving aside who Ehrlich may or may not have represented, let’s get to the heart of the question: Was he a lobbyist?
Ehrlich’s specialty at Womble was “government affairs,” a euphemism for lobbying. And the firm’s website boasts that “Led by Governor Ehrlich, our Maryland team has the access to ensure that our clients’ interests are represented in legislative debates at the state, local and federal levels.” Sounds like lobbying to us.
Both Maryland and the federal government require lobbyists to register before plying their trade. Old Line State lobbyists sign up with the State Ethics Commission. To lobby the big boys in Washington, you sign up with the House Clerk’s office and/or the Senate’s Office of Public Records.
Ehrlich never registered with any of the three bodies, and campaign spokesman Andy Barth insists the former governor has never worked as a lobbyist. So what did his “government affairs” job involve? “He has used the term ‘rainmaker.’ His job was to build [the firm], which he’s done quite successfully.”
David Hamilton, an Ehrlich confidante who has faced his own questions about lobbying registration and is the managing partner of the office, said Ehrlich never engaged in any lobbying activity, and never advocated for policy changes of any type. The former governor referred clients to public officials, lobbyists or lawyers who could help them and provided general strategic advice.
“[Lobbying] just didn’t happen,” Hamilton said. “We were very careful in watching his activities since we knew this was going to be an issue.”
Hamilton also dismissed the 'government affairs' label, saying there was no other logical label for Ehrlich. "If you're going to put Bob Ehrlich in a category, what category are you going to put him in?," he said.
For example, in 2007, Ehrlich received a call from Ribera Development, an Annapolis-based real estate development firm, about getting an easement over a federal highway. The former governor referred Ribera to two underlings, who registered as lobbyists. (The two employees also worked in the governor’s office with Ehrlich, as did several other Womble employees.)
At other times, he would refer clients to lobbyists or lawyers in D.C. or North Carolina, Hamilton said. He would also occasionally refer clients to members of the committees he served on in the U.S. House.
But a lack of registration doesn’t prove he never lobbied. The way state and federal laws are set up, it’s possible to lobby extensively without registration. On the federal level, you have to register if you do all three of these:
· spend 20 percent of your time working for one client on “lobbying activity.”
· receive at least $2,500 in compensation over a 3-month period.
· make more than one lobbying contact with a relevant official.
Craig Holman, a lobbyist with Public Citizen, a Washington-based consumer advocacy nonprofit, said it isn't uncommon for power brokers to assist interest groups in a multitude of ways without ever actually “lobbying.”
“Many persons will provide strategic advice and conduct significant lobbying activity, without making formal lobbying contacts (they have someone else in the shop make the contacts), or report less than 20% of their time conducting lobbying activity, and thus evade registration,” he wrote in an e-mail.
People behaving this way take advantage of what is sometimes referred to as the "Daschle exemption," named after former Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle, who now works for the lobbying and legal giant DLA Piper.
So was Ehrlich officially a lobbyist? No. Was he taking money from groups who wanted to influence the government and helping them do that? It looks that way. The letter of O'Malley's attacks is off, but their spirit is largely correct, which is good enough to earn a Mostly On Point.