When Montgomery County Executive Douglas M. Duncan stepped to the podium at a recent stop in his campaign for governor, he found an unwelcome shadow hovering above him. A political foe was holding a cardboard cutout of convicted lobbyist Jack Abramoff in black fedora and trench coat, the image scowling into television cameras.
For months, much to the delight of Democrats, the Abramoff scandal has been haunting Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., the incumbent Republican who got $16,000 - since returned - in contributions from Abramoff.
The lobbyist attended a Hanukkah party at the governor's mansion. And, in what Democrats saw as the most damning tie, Ehrlich continues to employ as deputy chief of staff Edward B. Miller, who set up a company Abramoff used to launder at least $1.5 million bilked from a corporate client and who has been subpoenaed in the Abramoff case.
Now Duncan, a Democrat, has been touched by one of the biggest Washington scandals in years after acknowledging that he took $20,000 in campaign contributions in 1999 from companies linked to Abramoff.
About the time those contributions were made, Duncan and the Montgomery County Council granted a lease on a shuttered public school to a yeshiva that the lobbyist was associated with, despite neighborhood opposition.
The biggest beneficiary of the latest Abramoff connections in Maryland could be Baltimore Mayor Martin O'Malley, a Democrat running for governor and leading Duncan in polls. O'Malley has no known connections to Abramoff and is well-positioned to criticize his opponents for their ties to the lobbyist.
Duncan said last week that he had decided to return the money immediately after a Washington Post reporter asked about the donations. He also said that he has met with Abramoff, a Montgomery County resident, a number of times over the years. And, he said, top aide Jerry Pasternak solicited political contributions from Abramoff a few months before leading negotiations with the yeshiva. Pasternak, on leave from his county job, is working on the Duncan campaign.
"Now obviously, people are going to ask, 'Why wasn't the money returned earlier? Why is Jerry Pasternak, who did this, still involved in the campaign?" said Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller, a top Democratic strategist.
"The problem is going to be if he wins the Democratic primary, then the advantage he'd have over Ehrlich and the Republican Party involving the whole Capitol Hill scandal [disappears]. They're going to tie him to it."
The Senate president and other political observers said they don't expect the taint of Abramoff to torpedo Duncan's candidacy, largely because of his years of generally scandal-free public service.
Duncan said in an interview that several months passed between the time Pasternak solicited campaign contributions and the negotiations over the school.
Duncan's entanglement interrupts Democrats' attempts to bind Ehrlich to scandals that have tainted the increasingly unpopular Republican leadership in Washington.
Ehrlich, like Duncan, has acknowledged that he knows Abramoff. His closest tie to the lobbyist is through Edward Miller (no relation to the Senate president).
Just before he went to work for the Ehrlich administration, Miller founded Grassroots Interactive, a company that, according to congressional testimony and documents in the federal case against Abramoff, was used by the lobbyist to launder funds.
State business documents show that Edward Miller was the sole owner of the company during the time it was involved in Abramoff's scheme. He retains a key role in the administration, dealing with transportation, business development, state parks and other issues, and was subpoenaed to testify before a federal grand jury in the matter. Ehrlich has supported him and has said that Miller is cooperating fully with federal authorities.
Neither Ehrlich nor Miller has publicly explained what the aide's role was at Grassroots or what testimony he has provided to federal authorities.
In January, Terry Lierman, chairman of the state Democratic Party, took advantage of the brewing Abramoff scandal, assailing Ehrlich for his ties to the lobbyist and insisting that Miller resign or be fired.
"Ed Miller is in the middle of the largest political scandal to hit Washington, D.C., in a century, and Ehrlich does nothing," Lierman said in a news release. "Ed Miller could do a greater public service by raising his right hand in a courtroom than serving at the right hand of Bob Ehrlich."
Audra Miller (no relation to Mike Miller or Edward Miller), spokeswoman for the Maryland Republican Party, largely gives Duncan a pass on his Abramoff ties. But she doesn't let the Democratic Party off so easily.
"Where is Terry Lierman with his drippingly self-righteous comments? Where is he now?" she said. "The Maryland Democratic Party is awfully quiet, and the hypocrisy does not escape us."
The story has caused a stir in Montgomery County, less because of the Abramoff connection than because it fits with the view of many Duncan critics who feel he is too friendly with developers who contribute to his campaign.
Drew Powell, executive director of Neighbors for a Better Montgomery, a group critical of developers' influence in government, said the association of Abramoff's name with the county executive might make the rest of the state realize that Duncan isn't the nice guy with the squeaky-clean reputation they have thought he was.
"Mr. Duncan rules from his bully pulpit with an iron fist, unquestioned loyalty and special deals for contributors who give him a lot of money," Powell said.
Outside Montgomery County, the issue looks like "a tempest in a teapot," said Donald F. Norris, a professor of public policy at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County. People in Duncan's county have a low threshold for scandal, he said, because, by the standards of the rest of the state, "Montgomery County politics are really very transparent, open, aboveboard and clean."
On a broader political plane, the affair fits neatly with an effort by the national Republican Party to reframe the Abramoff scandal as a bipartisan issue.
When Abramoff was indicted in January, Howard Dean, the national Democratic Party chairman, went on the offensive, promising in television interviews to make Republican corruption the theme of the 2006 election.
Republicans have worked since to publicize cases in which Democrats took money from the lobbyist's associates.
In November, Bob Casey Jr., a Democrat running for the U.S. Senate in Pennsylvania, held an event outside a Washington restaurant that once belonged to Abramoff to highlight the lobbyist's ties to his Republican opponent, Sen. Rick Santorum.
Santorum and the National Republican Senatorial Committee soon demanded that Casey return contributions from lobbyists who had worked with Abramoff but had long since stopped when they made their contributions.
O'Malley's campaign has been eager to exploit potential Ehrlich scandals. In one sentence last month, O'Malley campaign spokesman Rick Abbruzzese criticized Ehrlich for trying to get the Internal Revenue Service to audit the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and employing Joseph F. Steffen Jr., a suspected political dirty trickster, and referred to the laundering of money for Abramoff through the company Edward Miller set up.
Asked about Duncan and Abramoff, O'Malley declined to comment.
He might not need to. The man holding up the Abramoff cutout was an O'Malley supporter, said sources familiar with the mayor's campaign.
Sun reporter Doug Donovan contributed to this article.