Steele's Security Costs in Spotlight

By Matthew Mosk
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, February 26, 2006

Lt. Gov. Michael S. Steele has spent more than 128 days traveling outside of Maryland since taking office in 2003, and he took his security detail along at state expense, even on trips that were purely political, according to recently released travel records.

Most of Steele's trips were paid for by the Republican Party, including nearly a dozen flights to key battleground states in the run-up to the 2004 presidential election, when he campaigned for President Bush.

But Maryland taxpayers have paid $49,000 for state troopers, who serve as his bodyguards, to travel to political events with Steele, now a GOP candidate for U.S. Senate. That includes a $13,500 tab for troopers to accompany him on a six-day trip to Madrid last year to headline the annual gathering of Republicans Abroad in Spain.

The disclosure of those expenses, which were first reported in the Baltimore Business Journal last week, has prompted Democrats to call on Steele to reimburse the state for the cost of his political activity. Although the state police determine Steele's security needs, Democrats say the lieutenant governor should pay their travel expenses out of a political account.

Steele's state spokesman said the lieutenant governor's status as one of the nation's highest-ranking elected African American Republicans has kept him in demand on the national political circuit.

"His primary focus is always on his duties as lieutenant governor," said Bryon Johnston, Steele's press secretary. "The rest he tries to do on his own time."

Johnston noted that some of Steele's trips occurred on weekends and that he sometimes flew at night so he could first put in time in Annapolis.

Steele's travel schedule has taken him out of state more than twice as often as his boss, Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. (R), since the two took office in January 2003. In many ways, his travel log offers a revealing look at the unusual position he occupies as a politician with a significant national profile in an office that has virtually no official responsibilities.

The constitution includes only a one-sentence description of the role the lieutenant governor is to play -- essentially, serve at the pleasure of the governor. Which is not to say, Johnston was quick to point out, that Steele is not engaged in work for the people of Maryland.

Steele's portfolio has included work on an education commission and on efforts to assist faith-based organizations and help minority-owned businesses secure more state contracts.

But even before Steele announced in October that he would enter the political arena on his own as a Senate candidate, national Democratic Party researchers had made a formal request for his travel records. And that was not, party officials said, by accident.

"It's been clear for some time that he is using his current position as a springboard for visibility and attention," said Derek Walker, executive director of the Maryland Democratic Party. "The Maryland public is not being served at all by that."

Republicans agree that Steele's out-of-state travel has been unusual for someone in his position, but they say it reflects a demand placed on him by national party officials who want his help in reaching out to black voters.

"I'm sure he is flooded with invitations," said John Bambacus, a former GOP state senator and Frostburg mayor who teaches politics at Frostburg State University. "He is a party leader, more so than past lieutenant governors."

This was especially true in the months preceding the presidential election, when Steele made repeated trips to Florida, Ohio, West Virginia, Wisconsin and Michigan. And when he spent a week in New York to be a featured speaker at the Republican National Convention -- at a cost of $7,900 for his security detail. In April last year, he flew to Los Angeles for a taping of HBO's "Real Time With Bill Maher."

Most costly, though, have been Steele's foreign trips, most of which were described by Johnston as official trade missions intended to boost economic opportunities for Maryland companies. The state has spent $61,122 to send Steele, with staff and security, on seven overseas trips to destinations such as Vienna, South Africa, Paris and, most recently, Israel.

The travel costs that have most disturbed Steele's critics are those associated with his political trips.

Bobbie Walton, executive director of the watchdog group Common Cause Maryland, said she considered any expenses incurred by the state "inappropriate."

"The fact that he's traveling for political purposes, for advancing the message of his party, I would say there is a very strong question about the expenses associated with that travel," Walton said.

Democrats said Friday that the money should be paid out of a political account. "He needs to give that money back," Walker said. "The taxpayers of Maryland should not be paying for Michael Steele to go to Spain to talk about the Republican Party."

Steele's office said the lieutenant governor had no choice but to bring state troopers with him on those trips. State police spokesman Greg Shipley agreed that the decisions about protection rest with his department, saying, "It is not a question of the event; it is a question of our obligation to provide that protection."

But he said it was up to Steele's office to determine who should pick up the tab. "That would not be a decision we would make," he said. Shipley would not say how big Steele's detail is, citing security concerns.

D. Bruce Poole, a Democrat who served as House majority leader and on the state ethics commission, said he sees nothing about Steele's travel schedule that raises ethical or legal concerns. But in the heat of a political campaign, it may be tough to defend.

"To me, that's a surprising amount of time away from the state," Poole said. "I'm sure this is something he's going to get banged on for."

© 2006 The Washington Post Company