Ehrlich appointee fired over remark


WASHINGTON -- Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. fired one of his appointees to the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority yesterday after the board member asserted on a local cable talk show that homosexuals lived a life of "sexual deviancy."

The termination came a few hours after Metro board member Robert J. Smith, an architect and unsuccessful Republican candidate for the General Assembly from Montgomery County, was publicly confronted by a transit board colleague. Board member Jim Graham, a District of Columbia councilman who is openly gay, called on Smith to disavow his remarks or resign during yesterday's regular meeting of the panel, which oversees Metro business.

Graham said he was gratified that Ehrlich decided to replace Smith. Earlier in the day, Smith said that he stood by his beliefs, which he said stemmed from his Roman Catholic faith, and insisted that he would not resign unless ordered by the governor.

"Governor Ehrlich got it; Mr. Smith was clueless until the end," Graham said. "This is serious. To defend this point of view is beyond the pale. And so I think Governor Ehrlich got that very clearly, very quickly. So I appreciate his action."

Ehrlich said in a statement that Smith would be replaced immediately.

"Robert Smith's comments were highly inappropriate, insensitive and unacceptable," the governor said. "They are in direct conflict to my administration's commitment to inclusiveness, tolerance and opportunity."

In an interview last night, Smith criticized Ehrlich for bowing to public pressure. "At this juncture, I assume that the confrontation that arose today and the heat it generated was too much to take in an election year," he said. "I'm disappointed that the governor's office kind of reacted with dispatch to a groundswell of press criticism without contacting me."

Earlier, Smith was unrepentant in a discussion with reporters, saying that Graham was attempting to create "high theater" and that Smith's personal views should not have been aired in that forum. Smith also reaffirmed his beliefs - expressed on the show 21 This Week, a political roundtable that runs on cable Channel 21 in Montgomery County - and said he is entitled to his opinion.

"The notion that I consider homosexual behavior as deviant behavior is correct," Smith said.

When asked whether he should apologize to Graham for upsetting him, Smith said he would not. "I'm sorry that he feels that way, but I don't agree that his lifestyle is an appropriate way to live one's life," he said.

Smith becomes one of just a few Ehrlich appointees terminated for behavior. In early 2005, former aide Joseph F. Steffen Jr. was fired after acknowledging that he spread rumors about Baltimore Mayor Martin O'Malley, a political rival of the governor's, on the Internet. In May of last year, the governor fired the head of an Eastern Shore judicial nominating committee after the official used a derogatory term for Mexicans in his personal Web log.

The Metro board is composed of six voting members, two each appointed by the top elected official from Maryland, Washington and Virginia; and six nonvoting members.

Ehrlich appointed Smith, who received $21,000 annually for the post, in 2003.

The governor named Raymond J. Briscuso Jr., a Bethesda resident and biotechnology consultant, to the remainder of Smith's three-year term. Briscuso served as Maryland coordinator of George H.W. Bush's 1988 presidential campaign and ran unsuccessfully for Congress in 1990 as a Republican.

Metro board chairwoman Gladys W. Mack, a representative of the district, said yesterday that Smith's remarks reflected "a high level of intolerance."

"I think in an environment where human rights and equal treatment is certainly our public goal, I was surprised that someone who sits as a public official on a board would make that kind of a statement," she said.

Metro officials said that unlike their employees, board members are not covered by the organization's anti-discrimination policy. Still, the transit authority's interim general manager, Dan Tangherlini, issued a letter to Metro's 10,000 employees last night reassuring them that the organization is committed to "fair and equal treatment of all employees."

"I want to take this opportunity to re-affirm to all WMATA employees that discrimination of any kind will not be tolerated," he wrote.

Smith's remarks came during a show taped June 9 that has aired at least three times since. The discussion included a proposed federal gay marriage ban.

"That doesn't mean that government should proffer a special place of entitlement within the laws of the United States for persons of sexual deviancy," Smith said in the conversation about the rights of gays and lesbians.

Casey Aiken, executive producer of 21 This Week, said Smith has been a regular panelist for years and would be invited back. "We're not in the business of censoring free speech and political debate," he said.

In criticizing Smith during the Metro board meeting, Graham invoked the openly gay brother of Maryland Department of Transportation Secretary Robert L. Flanagan. Edward Flanagan of Vermont is a state senator and former state auditor who ran unsuccessfully for U.S. Senate.

"I wonder if the secretary of transportation considers his brother to be a sexual deviant," Graham said. "I can say that I do not consider myself to be a sexual deviant."

Bob Flanagan said he would not comment about Smith but said only that he is "very proud" of his brother.

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