MPT cries foul over footage in O'Malley campaign ad

Maryland Public Television officials are troubled by Gov. Martin O'Malley's use of station footage in a campaign advertisement critical of Robert L. Ehrlich Jr.'s record on taxes, and have requested that the commercial stop running.

O'Malley campaign aides insist they did nothing wrong in creating a spot that uses a public television interview in which Ehrlich explains the property tax increase and auto registration and "flush tax" fees imposed during his term by saying "there's a big difference between fees and taxes."

The commercial shows Ehrlich fielding a question from MPT host Jeff Salkin, then cuts to a series of unidentified people calling the former Republican governor a "typical politician" and saying they don't see the distinction between a tax and a fee. "If it comes from my pocket, it's a tax," says one woman.

Larry D. Unger, MPT's chief operating officer, said the public affairs program that generated the clip was "nonpartisan" and "clearly not made for political purposes."

While MPT operations are heavily funded with taxpayer dollars, there is no legal problem with O'Malley's using the footage, according to public television attorneys. But the station staff felt queasy at the notion that some of their work as state employees would turn up fueling a campaign for the man who is effectively their boss.

Henry Fawell, an Ehrlich campaign spokesman, said the ad shows that O'Malley's team "thinks government exists to serve their campaign purposes."

Ehrlich, too, has faced that criticism. As governor, he appeared in a series of state-funded television spots touting Maryland as a tourist destination. The ads featured the governor undertaking household chores such as gutter-cleaning and lawn-mowing so that harried Marylanders could escape for a getaway. Democratic lawmakers cried foul and banned spending on such promotions.

But Fawell compared the O'Malley's use of public television footage to an episode earlier in the summer when the state labor department briefly posted a pessimistic jobs report on its web site and then quickly removed it as the governor was delivering a more upbeat message on the economy. The agency head said the report was an internal document uploaded by mistake.

The O'Malley ad began running last week and will be rotated off the air on Tuesday. Rick Abbruzzese, a spokesman for the O'Malley campaign, said MPT's objections had no bearing on the decision to remove the spot. "We would do it again if we had to," Abbruzzese said. The campaign unveiled a new attack ad Friday that hits a different version of the theme and also this week will start showing an education spot in the D.C. market.

Unger said he's concerned that viewers might infer that the station supports the sitting governor in his tight re-election campaign. "We want to be a public broadcaster that is known as nonpartisan," he said. "Anything that affects that, we're concerned about." Unger said that station representatives contacted the O'Malley campaign as soon as they saw the commercial, asking that it be removed.

The station has a $26 million annual budget, with $9 million coming from taxpayers, $15 million in viewer contributions and $2 million from federal grants. Those funding levels have tumbled in recent years amid budget cuts.

The campaign picked the MPT footage for "creative reasons" and was trying to attack Ehrlich's credibility by pointing out public statements are at odds with his record, Abbruzzese said. The state Democratic Party produced a similar web-only video piece by culling tape about taxes and fees from an interview between Ehrlich and New York Times reporter John Harwood.

Abbruzzese said that the ad has been effective and that the campaign has "gotten a lot of positive feedback on it."

But the ad so upset Salkin, whose image appears in the footage, that he took time from his most recent State Circle show to address the issue. Speaking to the camera, Salkin said the edited portions of his interview made Ehrlich appear overly shifty. The full interview with Ehrlich is posted on the station's website, and the show in which Salkin made his comments will be posted Tuesday. Salkin declined to be interviewed for this story.

It is the second O'Malley attack ad that has created some controversy. In April, the governor took heat for a radio spot that linked Ehrlich with the BP Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico because, among other reasons, the North Carolina office of his law firm has some big oil clients. O'Malley later backed away from that ad, saying that his campaign made a "tactical mistake."

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