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 for several days that no such conversation occurred.
Also yesterday, two national journalism organizations joined The Sun in
protesting Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr.'s order that bans state officials from
speaking with Olesker and Sun State House Bureau Chief David Nitkin.
Shareese N. DeLeaver, an Ehrlich spokeswoman, said Steele now acknowledges
saying, "I'm comfortable with my governor," as Olesker wrote. But she said
Steele did not laugh and did not say, "So, what's your question?" after
Olesker had made an observation about multiculturalism.
This contradicts previous statements by the governor's staff. In an
interview Monday, DeLeaver said, "The lieutenant governor said he never spoke
with Olesker." And Friday, another Ehrlich spokesman, Greg Massoni, said of
Olesker, "He claims he spoke to the lieutenant governor at the event. He did
not speak to him."
Steele was at Pimlico on May 13 with his deputy chief of staff, Zachary
McDaniels, and the governor's communications director, Paul E. Schurick. Both
aides now recall that Olesker approached Steele outside the racetrack,
"Paul and Zach were standing by the lieutenant governor's side, who
acknowledged that Olesker was there, but this wasn't a one-on-one,
face-to-face interview," DeLeaver said. "The lieutenant governor said, `I'm
comfortable with my governor' as he was being whisked away."
She said that neither Schurick nor Steele would comment yesterday. A
message left yesterday for Steele's press secretary, requesting an interview
with 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 a
The Sun's public editor, Paul Moore, completed a review yesterday of two
Olesker columns that were questioned by Ehrlich's office. Moore said he is
confident about the veracity of the column on the encounter at Pimlico because
of Steele's reversal yesterday and because he spoke with Olesker when he
returned from Pimlico that day. At that time, Olesker told Moore of his
conversation with Steele.
Moore also reviewed a column from two weeks ago in which Olesker wrote that
at a hearing in Annapolis, Schurick was "struggling mightily to keep a
straight face." Olesker was not at the hearing and has said his description
Moore said that was "a serious lapse in judgment."
In his column yesterday, Olesker apologized for any misunderstanding. He
and Nitkin remain subject to the ban, and the Sun is reviewing its legal
options, including a lawsuit.
"It sets a dangerous precedent, not just for the press but also for the
public," said Sun Editor Timothy A. Franklin, noting the ban could be used
against citizens seeking information. "So the stakes are very high, and we
think 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 has
been turned down because Ehrlich has a policy not to meet with top Sun editors
or the editorial board. The policy stems from an editorial during the 2002
gubernatorial campaign in which The Sun wrote in an editorial that Steele, who
is black, "brings little to the team but the color of his skin."
Ehrlich will not meet with Sun editors until they apologize, his office
Also yesterday, the American Society of Newspaper Editors and the Reporters
Committee for Freedom of the Press wrote to Ehrlich saying his order violates
free speech protections and harms the public by restricting the flow of
"Your petty prohibition should be rescinded immediately," wrote Karla
Garrett Harshaw, president of ASNE, an organization made up of top editors at
the nation's daily newspapers.
Lucy A. Dalglish, executive director of the reporters committee, a
nonprofit organization that provides free legal assistance to journalists,
sent a similar letter to Ehrlich.
Dalglish wrote, "Your actions pose grave risks to fundamental First
Amendment rights of journalists to gather and publish information. ... You
have made it much more difficult for the people of Maryland to get information
about state government."
The Maryland-Delaware-District of Columbia Press Association and the
Newspaper Guild also weighed in yesterday. Officials with both organizations
called the governor's order ill-advised and asked for it to be rescinded