Truth-tellers, liars and equivocators

Gov. spills the truth to tie Ehrlich to big oil

August 10, 2010 - 03:22 PM
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Martin O'Malley
Martin O'Malley tarred Bob Ehrlich as having thick oil industry ties. Does he?

Politicians everywhere have something to say about the BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, and being located thousands of miles away from the no-longer-gushing spill site isn’t going to stop them.

Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley had already labeled his opponent, former Republican Gov. Bob Ehrlich, a lobbyist. (We said that claim was Mostly on Point.) Then he took the next logical step — tar the Republican by placing him in the pocket of the nation’s evil special interest du jour: Big Oil.

O’Malley launched the attack with a radio ad that was played in Baltimore and on the Eastern Shore. The ad, called “Drill, Baby, Drill” after the chant popularized by Sarah Palin, claims that Ehrlich voted to help “Big Oil ... avoid paying millions in royalties for drilling rights,” that he supported opening “new parts of the Gulf for drilling.” Then it claimed that “when 80,000 gallons of oil spilled in South Baltimore, Bob Ehrlich was the lobbyist representing the oil company.”

The kicker?

“Ehrlich's lobbying firm represents Citgo, Exxon Mobil and Shell Oil.”

That final bit is the ad’s most damaging charge, and the one the campaign wants to stick in the minds of the electorate, so let’s start there.

Since leaving Annapolis after O'Malley defeated him in 2006, Ehrlich has worked for the Baltimore office of the law firm Womble Carlyle Sandridge & Rice. Classifying Womble Carlyle, though, as “Ehrlich’s lobbying firm” is highly misleading. Womble Carlyle is a humongous operation, with 11 offices in seven states and over 530 lawyers, most of whom are not lobbyists. And the use of the possessive implies Ehrlich somehow controls the firm, when he only joined it in 2007 as a founding partner of the Baltimore office. It was founded in 1876.

Moving beyond the first three words of the sentence, did Womble Carlyle represent the oil companies? According to the Center for Responsive Politics’ Open Secrets database, Womble Carlyle hasn’t represented those companies in Washington in the past decade. The firm did, however, represent Citgo in one case listed on its website, and a firm representative told The Daily Record (subscription required) in 2008 that Exxon and Shell were among Womble Carlyle’s clients. But the Citgo case was argued in North Carolina, and there’s no evidence Ehrlich personally represented Exxon or Shell.

There’s also no evidence he hasn’t. O’Malley’s campaign points out that Womble Carlyle has refused to release a full list of Ehrlich’s clients.

“Why not release the full list?” O’Malley spokesman Rick Abbruzzese said of a short list of clients released to media organizations.

O’Malley stretched to call Ehrlich a lobbyist even though the Republican had never registered as one, but that claim had significant elements of truth. But calling him a lobbyist for the oil companies is too far a leap. So far that it’s Pure Fantasy.

Moving on to the other allegations in the ad:

Did Ehrlich vote to help oil companies avoid paying “millions in royalties for drilling rights?”

In 1999, Ehrlich voted for a 2000 Interior Appropriations Bill, which the League of Conservation Voters said allowed the oil industry to avoid paying between $66 million and $100 million a year in royalties. At the time, Ehrlich was a U.S. representative from Maryland’s 2nd Congressional District (the seat now held by Democrat Dutch Ruppersberger.) The bill passed 225-200.

For comparison’s sake, no Maryland House Democrat voted for the legislation, while fellow Maryland Republicans Roscoe Bartlett and Wayne Gilchrest supported it. Gilchrest’s vote is a key indicator here — he was a moderate who was willing to buck his party on environmental issues.

Did Ehrlich vote to open new parts of the Gulf of Mexico to drilling?

Yes, as did pretty much every other member of the U.S. House of Representatives. The 2002 Interior Appropriations Bill opened up 1.5 million new acres of the Gulf of Mexico to drilling. It passed 380-28, with every member of the Maryland delegation voting for passage. By this logic, if Ehrlich is in the tank for Big Oil, so are many of O’Malley’s party allies in the Old Line State.

Did Ehrlich work as a lobbyist for a company that spilled 80,000 gallons of oil in South Baltimore?

No, but he oversaw a lawyer who represented the company. In fall 2007, a pipe at the Center Point Terminal operated by Apex Oil burst, sending oil into the sewers underneath Baltimore’s Fairfield neighborhood.

When the Maryland Department of the Environment sued Apex, the company hired Womble Carlyle attorney John Sweeney, according to court records. Ehrlich was a founding and managing partner of Womble Carlyle’s Baltimore office, so Ehrlich was Sweeney's boss. But David Hamilton, the current managing partner of the office, told The Washington Post that “Ehrlich had nothing to do with [the case.]. Another lawyer brought that case from another firm.” The state and Apex eventually settled the suit. So Ehrlich definitely didn’t work as a “lobbyist” for Apex, and it’s a reach to say he even represented them.

The votes O’Malley’s ad cites, while beneficial to oil companies, were also backed by at least some representatives with environmental cred. Womble Carlyle’s work for the big three oil companies — and their defense of Apex after the South Baltimore spill — might be unsavory, but there’s no evidence it qualifies as anything more than standard legal work.

Fortunately, O’Malley’s efforts to paint Ehrlich as an oil industry lobbyist backfired. The Washington Post and Baltimore Sun editorial boards slammed O’Malley. The governor eventually admitted the negative attacks, particularly so early in the race, were a “tactical mistake.”

And, as we’ve mentioned, Pure Fantasy.

Pure Fantasy
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  1. nofool nofool

    Norman Nead

    Aug 11, 2010 - 11:24:33 AM

    Just because other government officials are also in bed with the oil companies, doesn't mean that Ehrlich isn't. There is evidence that he leans that way. Maryland has tried him as governor and we tossed him out, we don't need him again.

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