Food & Water Watch, a Washington-based environmental group, used Maryland's Public Information Act to obtain 70 pages of emails between O'Malley and Herbert D. Frerichs Jr., a partner with the Venable law firm in Baltimore who is general counsel for the Perdue family holding company that owns and operates Perdue Food Products, Perdue AgriBusiness and other entities.
"Never TOO busy to hear from you," O'Malley emailed Frerichs last fall as the lawyer, who sits on the board of the Living Classrooms Foundation, pressed the governor to provide state funding for a new education building on the Inner Harbor's Pier 1 by the USS Constellation, which the foundation oversees.
O'Malley also asked the lawyer's advice in trying to soothe Perdue Chairman Jim Perdue's ruffled feelings over printed comments by the governor's then-press secretary that poultry companies need to help in cleaning up the Chesapeake Bay. Frerichs had emailed O'Malley that his spokesman's comments upset Perdue.
Wenonah Hauter, executive director of Food & Water Watch, contended in a statement accompanying the emails' release that they show O'Malley is "clearly compromised by a cozy relationship with Perdue on issues pertaining to agriculture and the bay's pollution problems."
She also suggested O'Malley is "henpecked" by Perdue, a reference to exchanges in which Frerichs complains to O'Malley about his aides' comments and actions.
Spokeswomen for O'Malley and Perdue dismissed the criticism and said there was nothing untoward in the emails.
"The governor's record since he's taken office speaks for itself," said Raquel Guillory, his communications director. "His commitment to the environment, his commitment to improving the bay, speaks for itself. The emails also speak for themselves."
"It's no secret that Gov. O'Malley and Herb Frerichs have known each other since attending law school together," Perdue spokeswoman Julie DeYoung said in an email. "Part of Herb's job is to advocate for the company in legal and governmental affairs. The emails simply show him doing his job."
But the emails hint at a close personal relationship between O'Malley and Perdue's corporate lawyer. In one April 2011 email, the governor thanks Frerichs and his wife, Mary, for an evening they spent together. "It was a lot of fun," O'Malley wrote. "A welcome relief from Annapolis and all those old songs."
The ties extend to the political arena. Campaign finance reports show that Herb and Mary Frerichs gave O'Malley $8,000, the maximum legal donation for a couple, during the 2010 election cycle, when he was seeking a second term.
James Perdue gave O'Malley $4,000, the maximum individual donation, during that election cycle, records show.
The Perdue company, meanwhile, began donating to the Democratic Governors Association in 2010, when O'Malley took over as its head, after years of writing checks only to the Republican Governors Association. Perdue gave the DGA $10,000 in 2010 and $15,000 in January 2012, Internal Revenue Service records show.
In one email exchange, O'Malley and Frerichs confer on where a law school might be willing to set up a clinic to provide legal assistance to farmers. Perdue is a defendant, along with an Eastern Shore farm couple, in a federal lawsuit brought by the University of Maryland's environmental law clinic, accusing them of polluting a bay tributary in Worcester County. The university's role in the lawsuit has angered poultry industry supporters.
O'Malley — like Frerichs a University of Maryland law grad — wrote a letter in November to the school's dean sharply criticizing its involvement and saying it ought to be defending the farm family instead of suing it. The day the letter was leaked to the press, Frerichs emailed O'Malley "very nice."
The governor conferred with Frerichs as well on administration proposals to generate energy from burning poultry manure and to boost prospects for offshore wind farms. O'Malley wanted to find an alternative use for the millions of tons of chicken manure produced each year on the Eastern Shore, where it is used as a crop fertilizer and is a major source of bay pollution when it washes off fields.
Perdue had expressed interest in participating in a state-sponsored plant to produce energy from chicken manure, though Frerichs said the company had reservations about a large-scale project and the ability to secure enough manure to supply it. The state has solicited proposals to build a manure-to-energy plant but has yet to award the contract.
At one point, after O'Malley questioned whether Perdue was turning against the manure-to-energy proposal, an evidently irritated Frerichs countered that Perdue is "doing more to save agriculture in the state of md than the secretary of ag" and complains that O'Malley's agriculture secretary, Earl F. "Buddy" Hance, is not as supportive of Perdue as are his counterparts in Virginia and Delaware.
"I'm guessing you don't have the personal email of governors of DE or VA, so let me know when Buddy can/should be doing more to help you push stuff," O'Malley replied. "I'm serious. I'll have him call you Monday."
O'Malley also sought Frerichs' help in overcoming opposition among Perdue and other poultry industry officials to his plan for putting a commercial wind farm off Ocean City. O'Malley's wind legislation failed last year and again this year.
Food & Water Watch's Hauter warned that O'Malley's closeness to the Perdue lawyer could undermine new farm pollution regulations his administration is about to unveil.
The state Department of Agriculture initially proposed last year tightening rules on when, where and how animal manure and sewage sludge could be used as fertilizer on crops, but withdrew them for more study after they were roundly criticized by farm and environmental groups. Farming groups generally questioned the practicality of the measures or need for new limits, while environmental groups differed over how strong they should be.
O'Malley administration officials privately briefed farming, environmental and municipal government groups Tuesday on changes they are making to the proposed rules, which have yet to be published. A PowerPoint presentation released after the session explained that the revised rules would aim to "strike a balance" between reducing polluted runoff from farms and mitigating the economic impact of the new restrictions.
Environmentalists remain divided on the changes, with some saying they would help clean up the bay while others contend the rules have been watered down and would not do nearly enough. Farm group representatives said the changes give them more time to comply and some flexibility but expressed concern that the costs of meeting the new restrictions could hurt all of the state's farmers, not just the poultry industry.
"I would not by any stretch of the imagination say farmers would be happy about them now," said Valerie Connelly, director of government relations for the Maryland Farm Bureau.
Annie Linskey, State House reporter for The Baltimore Sun, contributed to this article.