O'Malley stretches truth on Ehrlich lobbyist label, but criticism sticks

By Ann E. Marimow
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, October 25, 2010; 10:31 PM

Over the past four months, Maryland Gov. Martin O'Malley has assailed Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. with a multimillion-dollar barrage of political ads questioning the former governor's work with a North Carolina-based corporate law firm.

The ads have framed the Nov. 2 gubernatorial rematch as a choice between someone who is "On Your Side" and a candidate who "represents special interests." And they appear to be working, given the erosion of Ehrlich's standing in a Washington Post poll published this week.

In one ad, the O'Malley campaign asks: "Why can't we trust Bob Ehrlich? . . . Because he says he's for us, but made $2.5 million at a special interest lobbying firm."

Ehrlich has dismissed the ads as "goofy" and "ludicrous" - which he repeated at a rally Sunday in Montgomery County. "I've been accused of being a big fat lobbyist," he said. "I'm not fat and I'm not a lobbyist."

The former Republican governor, who opened and led the Baltimore office of Womble Carlyle Sandridge & Rice, said he has not billed clients as an attorney, and he is not registered as a state or federal lobbyist. In interviews, Ehrlich, his clients and public officials said he did not exert direct and personal influence on government officials in the traditional role of a lobbyist.

But Ehrlich advised companies with business before the state and in Washington, and by not releasing a full list of his clients, he has allowed the worst perceptions to stick, said Trevor Parry-Giles, a University of Maryland professor of political communications.

"Instead of joking about it or passing it off," he said, "he should have confronted it directly and laid out the details."

O'Malley's description of Ehrlich's firm as a lobbying shop is a stretch. The North Carolina-based company employs 530 lawyers and has two registered lobbyists in its Washington office. Two employees in the Baltimore office were previously registered.

But the Democratic governor's characterization is not without some merit. Although Ehrlich was not directly working to persuade public officials, he was paid $734,000 in 2009, in part to provide an expert road map for his clients on how to get their desired results.

"His knowledge of how things work and how things play off of one another was important to us," said Paul A. Serini, executive vice president of the Baltimore-based XLHealth Corp., who sought Ehrlich's know-how for dealing with state and federal regulators.

At Womble Carlyle, Ehrlich provided strategic advice to health-care, real estate and construction companies. He helped clients navigate bureaucracies in Annapolis and Washington, where he once worked, and told clients whom to call and, in some cases, whom to hire. The head of his office's "government affairs" practice, Ehrlich said he also served as the local "face" of the firm, speaking to retailers in Las Vegas, venture capitalists in Atlanta and business people in Washington.

In some cases, however, Ehrlich's work appeared to take him to the edge of the legal definition of lobbying, in that it was designed to achieve similar goals. Lobbyists directly contact public officials; government affairs consultants advise clients on how to approach them.

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