A Washington public affairs firm hired to help fight Maryland's handgun law in a 1988 referendum has been charged with illegally paying poll workers, prosecutors say.

The misdemeanor charges filed Friday in Baltimore District Court name Vanguard Communications Plus of Washington and its president, Stephen Miller, with the alleged Election Day payments.

Maryland's election laws prohibit payments to workers at polling places on the day of voting. Vanguard and Miller each were charged with two counts of illegally paying poll workers and one count of conspiracy, punishable by up to one year in jail and $1,000 in fines for each offense.

The charges contend that Vanguard paid money to individuals, who in turn paid others to work on Election Day near the polls, said Dolores Ridgell, a Baltimore assistant state's attorney. Ridgell alleges that at least four people were paid to work near voting booths, urging voters to reject the law.

Vanguard was retained by the Maryland Committee Against the Gun Ban, an umbrella group that received the bulk of its $6.6 million campaign treasury from the National Rifle Association.

The groups worked without success to defeat a 1988 law that took effect this year, creating a nine-member board to decide what handguns may be made and sold in the state.