Maryland's legislative leaders said yesterday that they do not believe that a longtime aide to Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. (R) worked alone to circulate rumors about the personal life of Baltimore Mayor Martin O'Malley, and they called for an independent investigation.
Sen. Brian E. Frosh (D-Montgomery) said he will ask top lawmakers to grant him subpoena power to conduct hearings into what he called "the Watergate-style dirty tricks" used to smear O'Malley, a Democrat who is laying the groundwork to run for governor in 2006.
Baltimore Mayor Martin O'Malley and his wife, Catherine, talk to reporters about how rumors of an extramarital affair have hurt their family.
(Susan Biddle -- The Washington Post)
"I really think people ought to be hauled in here, put under oath and asked to explain what went on," Frosh said.
Fallout from reports about the alleged smear campaign came on a day when O'Malley and his wife spoke emotionally about the toll that rumors of an extramarital affair have taken on their family, including their 7-year-old son William. Catherine O'Malley told reporters that when she signed William's report card, "he was insisting Daddy sign it, too. He said if Daddy doesn't sign it, too, people will think we're in a divorce."
The mayor pressed Ehrlich to apologize for what he considers an orchestrated campaign. But Ehrlich refused, stressing that he had dismissed aide Joseph Steffen, who sent e-mails discussing the rumor. The governor also rejected calls by Democratic lawmakers for an independent investigation, saying he could handle it himself.
"We'll get to the bottom of this, believe me," he said.
Among Democrats, there was a sense of relief that O'Malley had publicly addressed the rumors that have clouded his potential candidacy for 18 months, and there was a desire to make this a memorable chapter in Ehrlich's first term.
Democratic leaders said they were appalled to learn of efforts, as described in Steffen's e-mails, to circulate a story that the mayor had fathered a child with a Baltimore television reporter and separated from his wife.
In the private correspondence, which was provided to The Washington Post, Steffen wrote: "A lot of the reason that everyone knows [O'Malley's] history is because of what has gone on beneath the surface. . . . A few folks put in a lot of effort to ensure the [Martin O'Malley] story got some real float."
The governor has denied any knowledge of a campaign to spread the rumors, and he asked his chief counsel, Jervis S. Finney, to determine whether Steffen was part of a conspiracy. Several Democratic state lawmakers said they would not be satisfied with an investigation led by Ehrlich's lawyer.
"Anybody [in the governor's office] who says they didn't know about it is full of it," said Del. Robert A. Zirkin (D-Baltimore County).
Maryland Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr. (D-Calvert) said he expects the governor to take immediate steps to prevent the destruction of documents or computer files that might help in understanding Steffen's role in three state jobs he has held since Ehrlich took office in 2003.
"An injunction should be filed today to prevent the administration from destroying e-mails and interoffice memos related to this cowardly conspiracy," he said. "I don't know how many people were involved in this, but I'm certain it was more than just Mr. Steffen."
Ehrlich told reporters that he would preserve and make public those records. He said he believes that Steffen was acting on his own when he sent the e-mails and posted messages spreading gossip about the mayor on a conservative Web site, www.freerepublic.com.