Md. Senators Question Use Of Funds By Nonprofit

By Matthew Mosk
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, June 22, 2005

U.S. Sens. Paul S. Sarbanes and Barbara Mikulski have asked federal officials to investigate whether a Maryland oyster recovery group used public money to pay for a recent opinion survey that read in parts like a political poll.

The Annapolis-based Oyster Recovery Partnership spent $20,000 on the survey, but officials in the administration of Maryland Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. (R) selected the polling firm and worked closely with the nonprofit group to prepare the 150 questions.

Among the queries put to several hundred Marylanders: whom did they vote for in the 2004 presidential election, and how might a future candidate's position on environmental matters influence their vote.

The content of the poll, and the group's collaboration with officials from the state Department of Natural Resources bothered Maryland Democratic leaders, who worried that state resources were used to conduct political research for the Republican governor.

In a June 16 letter to Lowell Bahner, who heads the Chesapeake Bay office of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, which oversees federal government's role in Bay restoration, Democrats Sarbanes and Mikulski said they also were concerned that scarce funds, secured to protect the native oyster population, were being misused.

"Any use of these funds that does not directly contribute to restoring native oyster habitat and native oyster populations, would, in our judgment, be inappropriate," the senators wrote.

State officials and the chairman of the Oyster Recovery Partnership said yesterday that the phone survey, conducted last month by Responsive Management of Harrisonburg, Va., was intended only to help shape any joint ventures they undertake. They said political questions were added by the polling firm for demographic reasons.

"We're not here trying to promote anyone's cause, other than bay restoration," said Dale Wright, who chairs the group.

Still, the two senators wrote that they wanted details about federal funds that have gone to the Oyster Recovery Partnership.

They asked for "a full and thorough accounting of the federal funds that have been provided for the oyster recovery effort and the oversight process that NOAA has in place for ensuring that grant funds are used appropriately by the recipients."

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