Jervis S. Finney, chief counsel to Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., has begun questioning members of the media - including two Sun reporters - about "MD4BUSH," an anonymous contributor to a Web site that posted rumors about Mayor Martin O'Malley.
Finney said he was asking the questions as part of his investigation into the activities of Joseph F. Steffen Jr., an aide to the governor who was fired Feb. 8 for his involvement in spreading the rumors about O'Malley's personal life.
MD4BUSH had several Web log exchanges with Steffen about the O'Malley rumors and gathered a number of Steffen's most damaging postings in an easy-to-find location on the Web shortly after the story reporting Steffens' connection with the rumors broke on a media Web site.
In a Feb. 16 letter to Sun reporter Michael Dresser, Finney cited a federal appeals court panel's decision this week that undercuts reporters' right to shield their sources. In a separate letter to Sun columnist Michael Olesker, Finney asked "whether you are in fact 'MD4BUSH.'"
Olesker and Dresser said they had no knowledge of MD4BUSH.
"Of course I'm not that guy," Olesker said in an interview. "It's not me, and I have no idea who it is."
Dresser said, "I am not MD4BUSH, and I would not care to speculate who MD4BUSH might be."
Finney's questions followed Freedom of Information Act requests by The Sun and other media about details of the administration's investigation into Steffen's activities. Dresser made The Sun's Freedom of Information Act request.
Finney's decision to question members of the media troubled one lawmaker who called for the investigation by the Ehrlich administration, as well as legal and media experts.
"I hope he's not doing this on state time," said Sen. Brian E. Frosh, a Montgomery County Democrat. "It's a waste of taxpayers' money.
"It's not his job to ask the question; it's not [the media's] job to answer," Frosh said. "It's the other way around."
Olesker and Dresser appear to be the only ones to have received written questions this week as part of the investigation.
Finney said in an interview that he "verbally" asked other media members about MD4BUSH and intends to follow up in written form. He said the decision to question the media is part of his effort to conduct a thorough investigation into the spreading of the rumors about the mayor.
"I am trying to seek information that is relevant to the governor - whether a state employee or official might be MD4BUSH," Finney said.
In support of his decision to question the media, Finney cited the U.S. Court of Appeals case involving reporters Matthew Cooper of Time and Judith Miller of The New York Times, who face contempt-of-court charges for refusing to tell prosecutors about their confidential talks with an official or officials in the Bush White House who revealed the identity of a CIA operative.
In that case, he said, it was suggested that there are times when it is appropriate for the media to reveal information and sources.
"It's up to the newspaper whether this is one of those times," Finney said. "It's entirely appropriate for me to ask the question. If you all are going to decline to answer the question, then so be it."
The course of Finney's investigation left some experts wondering where the administration intends to go with its probe.