The Ehrlich administration acknowledged yesterday that Lt. Gov. Michael S.Steele had a conversation with Sun columnist Michael Olesker at Pimlico Race Course in May -- a reversal after the administration had been saying forseveral days that no such conversation occurred.
Also yesterday, two national journalism organizations joined The Sun inprotesting Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr.'s order that bans state officials fromspeaking with Olesker and Sun State House Bureau Chief David Nitkin.
The accusation that Olesker had made up a conversation with Steele was partof Ehrlich's defense of his directive, issued last week. Though now sayingthat Olesker and Steele spoke at Pimlico, the governor's office still disputessome of the content of that conversation.
Shareese N. DeLeaver, an Ehrlich spokeswoman, said Steele now acknowledgessaying, "I'm comfortable with my governor," as Olesker wrote. But she saidSteele did not laugh and did not say, "So, what's your question?" afterOlesker had made an observation about multiculturalism.
This contradicts previous statements by the governor's staff. In aninterview Monday, DeLeaver said, "The lieutenant governor said he never spokewith Olesker." And Friday, another Ehrlich spokesman, Greg Massoni, said ofOlesker, "He claims he spoke to the lieutenant governor at the event. He didnot speak to him."
Steele was at Pimlico on May 13 with his deputy chief of staff, ZacharyMcDaniels, and the governor's communications director, Paul E. Schurick. Bothaides now recall that Olesker approached Steele outside the racetrack,DeLeaver said.
"Paul and Zach were standing by the lieutenant governor's side, whoacknowledged that Olesker was there, but this wasn't a one-on-one,face-to-face interview," DeLeaver said. "The lieutenant governor said, `I'mcomfortable with my governor' as he was being whisked away."
She said that neither Schurick nor Steele would comment yesterday. Amessage left yesterday for Steele's press secretary, requesting an interviewwith Steele, was not returned.
Olesker said he stands by his entire account of the conversation. "He[Steele] has vindicated my account," Olesker said. "I would never make up aquote."
The Sun's public editor, Paul Moore, completed a review yesterday of twoOlesker columns that were questioned by Ehrlich's office. Moore said he isconfident about the veracity of the column on the encounter at Pimlico becauseof Steele's reversal yesterday and because he spoke with Olesker when hereturned from Pimlico that day. At that time, Olesker told Moore of hisconversation with Steele.
Moore also reviewed a column from two weeks ago in which Olesker wrote thatat a hearing in Annapolis, Schurick was "struggling mightily to keep astraight face." Olesker was not at the hearing and has said his descriptionwas metaphorical.
Moore said that was "a serious lapse in judgment."
In his column yesterday, Olesker apologized for any misunderstanding. Heand Nitkin remain subject to the ban, and the Sun is reviewing its legaloptions, including a lawsuit.
"It sets a dangerous precedent, not just for the press but also for thepublic," said Sun Editor Timothy A. Franklin, noting the ban could be usedagainst citizens seeking information. "So the stakes are very high, and wethink we have an obligation to pursue legal options."
He added, "I hope we can resolve this short of going to court."
Franklin has offered to meet with Ehrlich to review his concerns but hasbeen turned down because Ehrlich has a policy not to meet with top Sun editorsor the editorial board. The policy stems from an editorial during the 2002gubernatorial campaign in which The Sun wrote in an editorial that Steele, whois black, "brings little to the team but the color of his skin."
Ehrlich will not meet with Sun editors until they apologize, his officesaid.
Also yesterday, the American Society of Newspaper Editors and the ReportersCommittee for Freedom of the Press wrote to Ehrlich saying his order violatesfree speech protections and harms the public by restricting the flow ofinformation.
"Your petty prohibition should be rescinded immediately," wrote KarlaGarrett Harshaw, president of ASNE, an organization made up of top editors atthe nation's daily newspapers.
Lucy A. Dalglish, executive director of the reporters committee, anonprofit organization that provides free legal assistance to journalists,sent a similar letter to Ehrlich.
Dalglish wrote, "Your actions pose grave risks to fundamental FirstAmendment rights of journalists to gather and publish information. ... Youhave made it much more difficult for the people of Maryland to get informationabout state government."
The Maryland-Delaware-District of Columbia Press Association and theNewspaper Guild also weighed in yesterday. Officials with both organizationscalled the governor's order ill-advised and asked for it to be rescindedimmediately.