Comcast Ties Entangle the Ehrlichs
Thursday, March 9, 2006
Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. (R) voted on an application by Comcast to perform work in a wetlands area while his wife was a Comcast employee on unpaid leave.
The vote was over a relatively benign matter that had already gained the support of state and federal agencies, but it underscores the potential for entanglements posed by Comcast's hiring of first lady Kendel S. Ehrlich and other family members of prominent public officials from both political parties.
Already, House Speaker Michael E. Busch (D-Anne Arundel) has publicly called on the state ethics commission to review the company's relationship with elected and appointed officials, their relatives and their friends.
Records show that in January 2004, Ehrlich voted as a member of the Board of Public Works to give Comcast a license to lay fiber-optic cable under Isle of Wight Bay near Ocean City. The panel -- Ehrlich is one of three members -- votes routinely on applications by companies to perform similar work on state land.
At the time the Comcast matter came before the board, Kendel Ehrlich was on unpaid leave from Comcast but remained a company employee, said the governor's press secretary, Gregory Massoni.
One former state ethics official said yesterday that, even if the first lady was not being paid at the time, the governor would have been required to recuse himself under state law if she had an expectation of returning to the company.
The ethics law states that a public official cannot participate in a deliberation or vote on a matter involving a company that employs his or her spouse, said Suzanne Fox, the executive director of the state Ethics Commission. If the commission finds an official in violation of that law, the official can face anything from a reprimand to a fine of up to $5,000, Fox said. She would not offer an opinion on Ehrlich's vote.
Whether the governor's vote represents a violation is a complicated question, and neither the governor's office nor Comcast would provide a critical element needed to answer that question: Kendel Ehrlich's exact employment status with Comcast, including the terms under which she was on leave, at the time of the vote.
Jim Gordon, a Comcast spokesman, said that the company hired Ehrlich in June 2001 and that she had been a consultant before that.
Speaking on WBAL Radio yesterday, the first lady said she has worked at Comcast since 1997, and said her $55,000 annual salary "has never changed from the beginning, over a 10-year period."
But the governor's disclosure form seems to indicate a break in employment, showing her working with Comcast from "2001-2003; 2004-present."
Massoni said the first lady "took leave without pay" to give birth to her second son in March 2004.