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Blueprint for a Legislative Probe Might Need Updating

By Matthew Mosk and John Wagner
Washington Post Staff Writers
Sunday, April 10, 2005; Page C04

Attorneys for the Maryland General Assembly were dusting off the law books last week as they tried to determine how lawmakers could deliver on their promise to launch a probe into personnel moves and alleged dirty tricks by aides to Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr.

Turns out, it's a lot easier to call for an investigation in Maryland than to launch one.

"This whole area hasn't been touched since the late 1970s," said Robert Zarnoch, the assistant attorney general assigned to the legislature. "When we dusted everything off, we discovered the law had gotten a little rusty."

Under a 35-year-old provision, the lawmakers can pass a resolution forming an "investigating committee." The resolution, which need pass only one chamber, would define the committee's purpose, powers, duties, duration, subject matter, scope of authority and size.

Zarnoch said that might be the most suitable approach, especially because it has been used before. In 1975, lawmakers formed such a committee to investigate claims that the Baltimore police department was harassing and spying on law-abiding citizens.

But there are potential political and logistical problems with using that approach to investigate the activities of Ehrlich aides, including Joseph Steffen, who was fired by the Republican governor after admitting that he had spread rumors about Baltimore Mayor Martin O'Malley (D).

The resolution could prompt a nasty floor debate as Republicans consider the entire proposition to be nothing more than a political witch hunt. And House Speaker Michael E. Busch (D-Anne Arundel) said even though the House could act on its own, he would be reluctant to pass such a measure without express consent from Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr. (D-Calvert).

Zarnoch said the law that sets the rules for such an investigation are a bit antiquated. For instance, they don't comport with more recently enacted open meetings requirements. One provision locks television reporters out of the proceedings entirely.

Busch said his office is leaning toward another approach, which would leave the investigation in the hands of the Legislative Policy Committee, which is made up of Senate and House leaders. They could convene after the session to appoint members of an investigative team and start to draw up a list of witnesses they plan to subpoena, Zarnoch said.

House Speaker Pro Tem Adrienne A. Jones (D-Baltimore County), whom Busch tapped to co-chair the investigation, said no matter what the legal complications, the probe will go forward.

"We're committed," she said.

Leaning on the Governor

Baltimore Mayor Martin O'Malley, a 2006 gubernatorial hopeful, is trying to use his muscle to pressure Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. to sign a bill raising the minimum wage in Maryland.

An e-mail from O'Malley's campaign manager, Jonathan Epstein, was sent to supporters last week, inviting them to sign an online petition asking Ehrlich to sign the bill.

The legislation, which the General Assembly passed and sent to Ehrlich's desk last week, would raise the minimum wage in Maryland to $6.15 an hour, $1 above the federal level.

The e-mail from Epstein notes that the federal minimum wage has not increased since 1997.

"Bob Ehrlich's Republican friends in Washington have shown no interest in making a change -- so it's up to us, Maryland," Epstein wrote. "We don't have to wait until Election Day to start changing our state for the better."

Ehrlich spokesman Henry Fawell said last week that Ehrlich was "not enthusiastic" about the bill but would not say whether the governor would sign it, veto it or let it become law without his signature.

Nudity Must Be Funny

Members of the Maryland Senate giggled and tittered and made use of some bad puns last week during a debate over public nudity.

At issue was an attempt by Prince George's County lawmakers to give greater authority to local officials to regulate strip clubs. An amendment pushed by Sen. Janet Greenip (R-Anne Arundel) would have protected members of the American Association of Nude Recreation from the legislation's reach.

"I want to know the bare facts. Can you describe for me what nude recreation is?" asked Thomas M. Middleton (D-Charles), drawing chuckles from his colleagues.

Greenip's amendment was voted down -- or "stripped" from the bill, as several senators put it.

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