In a campaign of escalating charges, Republican Richard D. Bennett alleged last night that Maryland Attorney General J. Joseph Curran Jr. has used his state police driver and state car to ferry family members on out-of-state trips.
Mr. Bennett, who is trying to unseat the two-term Democrat, made the charges at a debate at the University of Baltimore.
In response, Mr. Curran acknowledged that his wife had accompanied him on business trips to New York and to Washington, and he said he had once received permission for the driver to take his wife to New York while he was in a hospital.
But he said he had done nothing wrong.
The Republican launched into the attack after being asked a question about sentencing guidelines, saying that his campaign had had several calls from former members of Mr. Curran's staff, in particular an unnamed former assistant attorney general and former state troopers.
Mr. Bennett then charged that Mr. Curran used the car and trooper to take family members to New York and Virginia.
Mr. Curran replied that it was possible his wife would have gone to a museum or shopping in those cities while waiting for him as he conducted business. But in those cases, he said, he would have declared that mileage as "income" on his federal and state income tax returns.
In a later interview, Mr. Curran also said that in October 1991, while recovering from cancer surgery, he made arrangements to have his state police bodyguard-driver take his wife to New York in the state car.
But he said he sought permission from the commander of the executive protection unit and paid for the gas and the trooper's lodging.
The Bennett campaign provided the names and telephone numbers of a former assistant attorney general and former bodyguard, suggesting that they could corroborate the charges. But neither would comment when contacted by The Sun.
Mr. Bennett, still smarting from recent revelations that his law firm did not pay some federal taxes for years, struck a harsh prosecutorial tone during the debate.
"How dare you . . . sit up here and talk to me about setting an example," Mr. Bennett said.
"Do you think it's appropriate to have a state trooper in a state car . . . to drive to New York so that you can then have a member of your family come back with you in a state car on personal business?" he asked.
"Do you think it's appropriate to order a state trooper in a state car to take your wife and friends to Crystal City, Va., to shop -- not once, not twice, but 12 times in a certain time period?"
Mr. Curran largely ignored those comments during the forum, but said afterward, "Just to go shopping? That's nonsense. That didn't happen. No way in hell."
Mr. Curran did say that in returning from New York while on state business it was possible that he once brought his daughter and granddaughter back with him.
Last night's exchange was the latest in a series of attacks by both candidates.
Mr. Bennett has accused Mr. Curran of breaking the law by failing to file a required annual report, while Mr. Curran has criticized Mr. Bennett for his former law firm's tax problems.
This is not the first time Mr. Bennett has accused Mr. Curran of misusing his bodyguard and black Ford.
He rapped him last week for taking the car to political events.
Mr. Curran acknowledged doing so, saying he was only following orders from the state police.
Police policy is to protect the attorney general and other state officials from the time they leave for work until they return home at night, according to Mr. Curran and a state police commander.
The commander, Capt. H. James Spicer, could not be reached last night, but said last week that he knew of no unusual or excessive use of the protection service by Mr. Curran.