Maryland Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. was in negotiations with the Baltimore Sun a few months ago over his decision to bar state officials from talking to two of the newspaper's writers when he determined that he had a problem.
Ehrlich was concerned that the matter was being mishandled by the lawyers from the state attorney general's office who were representing him. Worse, he worried that they were doing so on purpose. On Jan. 3, Ehrlich called Attorney General J. Joseph Curran Jr. to his office and asked him to step aside so the governor could hire his own counsel.
"We felt that the attorney general had a clear conflict of interest," said Paul E. Schurick, Ehrlich's communications director, who was in the meeting. "But in the face of a personal appeal by the governor to recognize that conflict, he refused."
Ehrlich's problem with Curran is one of family and politics. Curran, 73, is a Democrat in his fifth term as attorney general and is considering a bid for a sixth next year. Ehrlich is the state's first Republican governor in a generation. The political brew is thickened by the fact that Curran's daughter is married to Baltimore Mayor Martin O'Malley (D), who is preparing to mount a campaign to unseat Ehrlich.
Curran ultimately won the Baltimore Sun case, which is on appeal. And the attorney general said in an interview last week that, no matter who is governor, the work of his office has never been colored by politics.
"I would hope that if someone has that perception, they would look at the track record," Curran said.
Still, Ehrlich's concerns about the potential for a conflict persist. And they have escalated over the past three years, as the governor has repeatedly found himself consulting the attorney general's office in politically charged disputes.
In recent weeks, Curran has been asked to weigh in on a decision by police to forbid protesters on the Eastern Shore to chant or carry signs at an event organized by the governor. Curran has clashed with Ehrlich over whether to join a multi-state lawsuit against the federal government over power plant emissions. Curran wants to join the suit; Ehrlich does not.
Perhaps the most contentious episode came this year, after Ehrlich fired longtime aide Joseph F. Steffen Jr. for spreading rumors about O'Malley's personal life. Curran decried Steffen's behavior in interviews.
When it came time to field requests from news organizations seeking copies of the e-mail files on Steffen's state computer, it fell to Curran's office to review Steffen's correspondence and determine what could be made public. Curran said he left the matter completely to subordinates and "kept my hands off that entirely."
Nevertheless, Ehrlich asked his legal counsel, Jervis S. Finney, to go over the documents before they were released. At least some documents determined by Curran's office to be public record were ultimately withheld.
"It was clear to us we needed direct control," Schurick said.
An independent attorney general is a relatively new thing in Maryland.
For years, gubernatorial candidates ran with a slate that included a choice for attorney general. But in 1978, as corruption cases were staining the Maryland political landscape, Stephen H. Sachs (D) ran on a promise that the attorney general, in his words, "wouldn't just be the french fries that go with the Big Mac." His pledge was to serve as an independent voice who would be a check on gubernatorial power.
Sachs said in an interview that he does not believe Curran's circumstance amounts to a conflict.
"I would say it's not the job of the attorney general to please the governor or make him look good, whether he's of the same party or not," Sachs said. "The attorney general is elected by the public, and his ultimate responsibility is to the public."
Sachs also said he believes that anyone who knows Curran "knows that Joe calls them as he sees them." It's a common sentiment in Maryland political circles, from both parties.
A March 26, 2004, quote prominently displayed on the home page of Curran's campaign Web site drives home that point, stating that "you can cross the length and breadth of this state, and you will not find a man with a higher sense of morality than Curran." Ehrlich aides believe that might be more persuasive, however, if it weren't for the source of the quote. They are the words of columnist Michael Olesker, one of the two Baltimore Sun writers that Ehrlich had banned.