Rivals taking aim at Ehrlich

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr.'s Democratic rivals accused him yesterday of using his influence as a member of Congress to urge the Internal Revenue Service to investigate whether the NAACP engaged in political activism and violated its tax-exempt status.

The charges come a day after the Baltimore-based National Association for the Advancement of Colored People released hundreds of documents turned over to the group by the IRS. NAACP officials charge that the documents help show that partisan politicians sparked an October 2004 IRS audit as an attempt to silence the nation's oldest civil rights group.

The 532 pages include a Dec. 14, 2000, letter from Richard E. Hug, a powerful Republican political donor who is now Ehrlich's chief fundraiser, asking the IRS to launch an investigation of the organization. Two months later, Ehrlich, then a Baltimore County congressman, followed up with a letter of his own, urging the IRS to respond to his constituent's request. The letters were first reported yesterday in The Sun.

"It's political retribution; it's using federal agencies to go after people who do not agree with you politically," said Montgomery County Executive Douglas M. Duncan, who is seeking the Democratic nomination for governor. "I think it continues his pattern of deception and denying. To say that Dick Hug is just another constituent of Bob Ehrlich is ridiculous. That doesn't pass the laugh test."

Baltimore Mayor Martin O'Malley - who will face Duncan in the Democratic primary this fall for the chance to challenge Ehrlich - said the governor used his allies to engage in "dirty tricks."

"I think Marylanders expect more of their leaders than to abuse their power or to maintain dirty-tricks operations with our tax dollars," O'Malley said. "I had thought that with Watergate we were past that phase in American history when leaders would employ dirty-tricks operatives, whether it's to attack the NAACP or political opponents."

Ehrlich's letter asked the IRS to respond to his "special projects coordinator," Joseph F. Steffen Jr., a longtime aide who resigned in early 2005 after acknowledging spreading rumors about O'Malley on the Internet. Lawmakers are investigating Steffen's role in state employees allegedly being terminated for political affiliation.

Henry Fawell, an Ehrlich spokesman, maintained that Ehrlich's five-sentence letter did not offer an opinion on the NAACP's activities and instead represented a congressman's inquiry on behalf of a constituent.

Fawell added that the complaints of the governor's challengers seemed to be aimed at Hug, rather than the governor.

"It doesn't sound like they had a problem with what the governor did," he said. "It sounds like their questions are for Dick Hug."

Hug, who helped Ehrlich raise more than $10 million during the 2002 gubernatorial campaign, has defended his letter to the IRS, saying he was prompted by a television ad sponsored by the NAACP's National Voter Fund. The ad depicted the daughter of a black man dragged to death by three white men in a pickup truck in Texas, blaming then-Texas Gov. George W. Bush for failing to adopt a hate-crime law.

Hug, then the Maryland finance chairman for Bush's 2000 presidential campaign, said the NAACP attacked Bush, despite its nonprofit status which prohibits it from political activism. If the IRS were to take away the NAACP's nonprofit status, donors to the group would no longer be permitted to claim tax deductions.

Still, observers beyond Ehrlich's challengers said the governor's actions deserve criticism. Rep. Charles Rangel, a Democrat from New York who came to the defense of the NAACP after the IRS audit was launched, said elected officials use discretion when deciding whether to follow up on constituents' requests.

"You are not supposed to do anything that will impact negatively on someone or an organization; that's wrong," he said. "It's not the moral thing to do, unless you had the knowledge that there was some wrongdoing. To hide behind a constituents' request is cowardly."

Political observers said Ehrlich's letter could hamper his ability to attract black and progressive voters. The first-term Republican governor will have a tough time convincing black Marylanders, who make up nearly a third of the state's population and historically vote Democratic, that he supports their interests, said Ronald Walters, a professor of government and politics at the University of Maryland, College Park.

"This was an action that Ehrlich took on his own," Walters said. "It deepens the gulf between him and African-Americans, and it will certainly poison whatever relationship he has with African-Americans and by extension [Lt. Gov. Michael S.] Steele."

Ehrlich, who is white, made inroads with black voters by choosing Steele, who is African-American, said Walters. Now that Steele has entered the race for U.S. Senate, the race of Ehrlich's next choice will be scrutinized, Walters said. Ehrlich's Democratic challengers are white and have chosen black running mates; Ehrlich has yet to announce his pick.

"His running mate ought to be African-American because the others are; if not, it creates a racial issue and sticks out like a sore thumb," said Walters.

Matthew Crenson, chairman of the political science department at the Johns Hopkins University, said he expects Steele's Democratic Senate challengers, particularly Kweisi Mfume, who is the former president and chief executive officer of the NAACP, and U.S. Rep. Benjamin Cardin, to use Ehrlich's letter as political capital.

But yesterday, they avoided direct criticism of Ehrlich, Steele and Hug. Cardin merely reaffirmed his commitment to civil rights: "I am proud to have partnered with the NAACP to fight on behalf of those who have historically not had a voice in our political system."

Mfume expressed his frustration at the IRS audit. "The handling of this matter has been frustrating for all parties involved," said the former Baltimore congressman. "The audit process has been inexplicably drawn out in a way that does not serve the public or the NAACP."

Meanwhile, Steele called the NAACP's release of the documents politically motivated.

"I hope everyone is understanding of their duties," he said. "We should leave the politics to the politicians, and the NAACP should stay true to working on issues of civil rights."

But Steele also expressed concern that the NAACP might be unfairly targeted. "I would be disappointed if it's a singling out of the NAACP over other organizations," he said.

NAACP lawyers said they released the documents this week to prompt the IRS to reveal all the complaints that initiated the audit. Lawyers said the IRS has failed to respond to all four of its requests for documents filed under the Freedom of Information Act.

The IRS maintains the audit was limited to whether Chairman Julian Bond's 2004 speech criticizing President Bush's policies crossed the line into partisan politics.

Bond said yesterday that, taken together, the documents, which include letters from Sen. Susan M. Collins of Maine, the late Sen. Strom Thurmond of South Carolina and Rep. Jo Ann Davis of Virginia, display a disturbing pattern.

"These complaint letters to the IRS represent a disturbing pattern over many years of the partisan attempts to ruin the NAACP and tear us from our mission of fighting racial discrimination," Bond said.

Rep. Elijah E. Cummings, a Baltimore Democrat, said many of his black constituents have suspected the audit was motivated by the Republican Party, and the release of documents raises more concern.

"I think it certainly causes African-Americans to wonder," he said.

kelly.brewington@baltsun.com

Sun reporters Justin Fenton and John Fritze contributed to this article.

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