Close Ties To Ehrlich Lucrative For Lawyer
Wednesday, May 24, 2006
Maryland Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr.'s personal lawyer has parlayed his close ties to the governor into a booming Annapolis government relations practice.
And because David Hamilton has emerged as a behind-the-scenes power broker without ever registering as a lobbyist, he's been able to do what no Maryland lobbyist can: help clients get access to the governor and other policymakers, and then ask those same clients to donate to Ehrlich's 2006 reelection campaign.
State ethics experts say it sounds problematic for Hamilton not to register, but Hamilton says it's not: "I know exactly where that line is, and I am very careful not to cross it. I do lawyering, not lobbying."
The question of whether he should register as a lobbyist is not insignificant in a town where the conduct of a close friend of then-Gov. Parris N. Glendening (D), as well as two full-blown lobbying scandals, prompted strict new standards for those exerting influence in the State House.
In 2003, when Ehrlich became Maryland's first Republican governor in more than a generation, he brought with him a new set of insiders, shaking up a notoriously insular and clubby state capital. Several have drawn unwanted attention to Ehrlich: among them, a power company lobbyist who arranged hunting trips for utility regulators and a Comcast executive who helped Ehrlich's wife get a television production job.
Hamilton's activities have remained low-key, though, even as his firm developed a portfolio of clients who sought influence on policy decisions with the new administration. And he has represented these clients while continuing to raise money for the governor, including at one point serving as co-chairman of a committee called "Lawyers for Ehrlich."
Because he is not registered, Hamilton's activities are subject to none of the rigorous disclosure requirements lawmakers have placed on lobbyists. He does not, for example, have to disclose meetings that he personally arranged and attended for clients with Ehrlich.
Hamilton said he has been able to maintain his unusual perch by farming out his clients' lobbying needs to those who are already registered in Annapolis. As head of government relations for the firm Ober Kaler, Hamilton entered into what he calls a "strategic relationship" with lobbyist William Pitcher. "Bill lobbies, and we handle legal issues for clients," he said.
"It all fits in nice little blocks. That's how we planned it."
Hamilton said he has consulted with the lawyer for the State Ethics Commission about the arrangement. The commission's executive director, Suzanne S. Fox, confirmed that the attorney offered general ethics advice to Hamilton's firm but that he did not explicitly bless this setup, nor would he.
Former Maryland ethics commission chairman Charles O. Monk II said he found the arrangement troubling. "I would say, if those are his activities, that is lobbying, and he should have registered," he said.
A review of records obtained through the state's public information act shows the range of Hamilton's activities on behalf of his clients.