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.
The accusation that Olesker had made up a conversation with Steele was part of Ehrlich's defense of his directive, issued last week. Though now saying that Olesker and Steele spoke at Pimlico, the governor's office still disputes some of the content of that conversation.
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, DeLeaver said.
"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 quote."
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 was metaphorical.
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 said.
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 information.
"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 immediately.