In some of his harshest language yet, Mayor Martin O'Malley charged Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. with orchestrating a taxpayer-financed smear campaign against him and demanded the governor cease his "cowardly abuse of power."
The Republican governor denied the Democratic mayor's accusation that he is allowing state employees to continue to spread rumors about O'Malley's marriage and dismissed the mayor as a "whiner."
The vitriolic exchange between the two likely 2006 candidates for governor came on a day when a local radio station revisited five-year-old comments made by the mayor's wife acknowledging earlier rumors about their marriage.
"There's a big difference between public wonderings about a young couple thrust into the spotlight of being the city's first family, and a premeditated, orchestrated and relentless campaign run by dirty trick operatives close to the governor funded on state taxpayer dollars," O'Malley said during a City Hall news conference yesterday.
"I'm calling upon the governor to end this cowardly abuse of power," the mayor continued. "I'm calling upon the governor to fire the remaining members of his taxpayer-financed dirty tricks team. And I'm calling on the governor to stop right now the politics of character smear and character assassination that apparently he learned at the elbow of Newt Gingrich."
Ehrlich said he had no comment on the substance of the mayor's allegations but said that "O'Malley points fingers."
"Whining is not a leadership style," Ehrlich said. "I don't like whiners. I've never associated with whiners."
He said his administration could not respond every time the mayor "acts out, every time he whines, every time he points a finger."
The Maryland Republican Party also declined to comment yesterday, deferring to Ehrlich. A Gingrich spokesman, Rick Tyler, accused O'Malley yesterday of his own subtle smear campaign against the former U.S. House speaker.
Ehrlich did respond earlier this year when O'Malley held another news conference outside City Hall to address an Ehrlich aide's rumor-mongering about the mayor's marriage on a conservative Web site. The aide, Joseph F. Steffen Jr., was fired in February after he admitted his actions.
Now O'Malley claims other Ehrlich operatives are diverting attention from that public relations setback by giving media outlets proof that the rumors long preceded Ehrlich's election.
O'Malley's comments came in response to WBAL Radio's report yesterday on a March 2000 Washington Post article in which the mayor's wife, Katie Curran O'Malley, acknowledged rumors shortly after O'Malley took office. Yesterday's radio story quoted media observers as saying the mainstream press failed to report that the rumors existed long before Steffen was caught.
O'Malley pointed out that Steffen admitted that he had worked with other Ehrlich administration employees to keep the rumors alive and that these unidentified workers are still employed by state government. The mayor said Ehrlich operatives had given WBAL Radio copies of e-mails from his wife's brother, J. Joseph "Max" Curran III, a member of the state's Public Service Commission.
In the e-mails, copies of which were obtained by The Sun, Commissioner Curran calls the mayor's wife a "loose cannon" because she was quoted in The Post's March 10, 2000, article saying the mayor's public praise of her "helps offset the rumors ... that he's running around on me, that he's been running around on me for years."
She also said in the article that O'Malley's opponents from the 1999 mayoral election had spread rumors about the mayor.
"I think we need to get the first lady a press secretary," Commissioner Curran wrote in an e-mail to First Deputy Mayor Michael R. Enright after the article's publication. "What's this business about telling reporters that Martin is running around. Part of the [deputy mayors'] job should be getting Martin [h]ome with the kids - I fear the worst."
Curran also wrote that his sister "needs some help with both Martin's absentee-ism and the presses' cut throat inclination."
The mayor's wife declined to comment yesterday.
The e-mails from Commissioner Curran were obtained by WBAL Radio in response to a public information act request the station made to the Public Service Commission on May 11.
In a statement issued yesterday, Max Curran said the e-mails were obtained without his knowledge and that they are taken out of context. He wrote that he was simply concerned with the busy schedules being kept by the mayor and his sister, and that they needed more help from City Hall staff.
"It should be noted that someone within the state Public Service Commission with access to Information Technology apparently rifled through all of my e-mails over the last five years in the hopes of finding something that, when taken out of context, would hurt and embarrass me, my sister and our family," Max Curran wrote.
Maryland Democratic Party Chairman Terry Lierman accused another close Ehrlich aide, Craig Chesek, of "dirt digging" to leak Curran's e-mails to the media - although the state agency was legally obligated to honor WBAL Radio's public information request. Chesek is chief of staff for the Public Service Commission, a position that oversees management information systems, according to the regulatory agency's Web site.
"Why does Craig Chesek or his PSC employees have any right to smear the family members of Ehrlich's political opponents?" Lierman wrote in a statement yesterday. He called on Ehrlich to fire Chesek, who could not be reached for comment.
Chesek is also a former Ehrlich district staffer. He has recently been accused of orchestrating firings at the commission that many say were politically motivated.
O'Malley claimed Ehrlich operatives steered reporters to Max Curran's e-mails. WBAL's May 11 public information request was honored within five days, according to Curran's lawyer, Timothy F. Maloney. Curran and Maloney have asked the commission to tell them who accessed and searched the e-mail account to determine whether the search was legal.
By contrast, the Ehrlich administration took the full 30 days permitted by the public information law before turning over copies of Steffen's e-mails requested by The Sun and other news media.
"That's their spin," said Jeff Beauchamp, WBAL Radio station manager and vice president. "The fact of the matter is that nowhere could we read in all the coverage of the Steffen story what the genesis of the rumor was."
O'Malley said the story was never about when rumors started but whether Ehrlich's close aides orchestrated a campaign to spread them.
Ehrlich said that his administration is not keeping the rumors in the news and that the story is really about how the media has portrayed the firing of Steffen. Some Republicans have said that Steffen may have been set up by Democratic operatives, who coaxed Steffen into spreading rumors about O'Malley.
Sun staff writer Andrew A. Green contributed to this article.