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Focusing on the job, not the credit

The Baltimore Sun

OCEAN CITY -- Attorney General Douglas F. Gansler did something unusual here recently for any politician, but for him especially. He admitted defeat.

Speaking on a panel exploring the state's growing gang problem, Gansler said that a related bill he backed during the past legislative session had been "gutted" by lawmakers, many of whom happened to be defense attorneys.

"It's a little bit like asking the elephants to pass the peanuts," Gansler joked during a meeting at the Maryland Association of Counties conference.

Then Gansler vowed to work with the limited bill, not to fight to further tweak it next session, and he pledged to create a new statewide gang member registry.

Known during eight years as Montgomery County state's attorney for his ready humor and enthusiastic self-promotion, Gansler was as apt to show up on CNN as he was in a courtroom during the Washington-area sniper trial or when he prosecuted boxer Mike Tyson. Since taking office in January, however, the Democrat has impressed other state officials by trying to be more of a team player. They see Gansler undergoing a stylistic metamorphosis.

"I think so far Doug has been pretty candid, and I would say somewhat humble, in the fact that the job is in many respects much broader than he expected when he ran for office," said House Speaker Michael E. Busch, an Anne Arundel County Democrat.

Anti-gang efforts

He worked behind the scenes to build support for the anti-gang legislation, championed more publicly by Gov. Martin O'Malley and state Democratic lawmakers. He testified with little fanfare for a bill to prevent voter intimidation pushed by Maryland Sen. Benjamin L. Cardin. And despite being a death-penalty proponent, he kept largely mum when the governor lobbied earlier this year for repeal.

"I don't have the sense that he's been ruffling any feathers per se," said Prince George's County State's Attorney Glenn F. Ivey, a Democrat. "From my perspective at least, he's been very focused on the job and law enforcement in general."

Overall, Gansler manages a department of about 800 workers, 427 of whom are attorneys. His budget for the fiscal year that began July 1 is $27.6 million.

Maryland's attorney general serves as legal counsel to the governor, the General Assembly, the state judiciary and to most state agencies. He reviews proposed administrative rules and regulations before they can go into effect. Gansler, 44, also enforces Maryland's antitrust, consumer protection and securities laws, and conducts criminal prosecutions and appeals. However, Gansler can't sue on the state's behalf without the governor's permission.

In addition to gang violence, Gansler has begun to burrow into issues such as corporate malfeasance and the ethics of the student loan industry. He also created a new office of civil rights.

Gansler hasn't suffered an exodus of lawyers loyal to his well-liked and mild-mannered predecessor, fellow Democrat J. Joseph Curran Jr., who stepped down last year after two decades in office.

Relations between Curran, who is O'Malley's father-in-law, and former Republican Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. were strained. Ehrlich regularly complained that he needed a new lawyer, a mantra that became a 2006 campaign trail standard.

But it's no longer the attorney general who is causing friction in the ranks of top state officials.

"Most of the newspaper and television attention seems to be with Peter [Franchot]," Curran said of the outspoken, activist state comptroller. "And Doug's just doing his job. And Martin's just doing his job. They seem to be getting along OK."

Environmental focus

Gansler has clearly signaled a new approach on environmental issues as well.

Environmentalists criticized Ehrlich for failing to enforce pollution laws, and in 2005 Ehrlich prevented Curran from joining a multistate lawsuit challenging federal rules exempting coal-fired power plants from tough mercury pollution-control requirements. Gansler filed a motion allowing Maryland to join the mercury rules lawsuit this year.

While Gansler has set his sights on environmental polluters - likening his intention to crusade against them to former New York Attorney Gen. Eliot Spitzer's prosecution of corporate crooks, and former Mississippi Attorney General Mike Moore's battle against big tobacco - he hasn't launched an all-out campaign yet to target those sullying the Chesapeake Bay. But he has started to push his attorneys, in coordination with the Maryland Department of the Environment, to fine companies violating air pollution and bay critical-area laws.

For example, Constellation Energy had to pay $100,000 for violations at three coal-fired power plants. Another company, Oakland-based Mettiki Coal, was fined $150,000 and was reported to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency for "violating state air pollution requirements," Gansler's office said.

True to his campaign promise, Gansler has shown he'll even level legal action against local farms if they're found to be dirtying state waters.

"We're going after, in a much more progressive, proactive way, polluters," Gansler said during a recent interview in his Baltimore office, where a poster of Harry S. Truman hangs over his desk. "There should be a time in the near future in Maryland where every time it rains, raw sewage doesn't get pumped into our waterways. The fact that that happens in the 21st century is anathema to anyone's concept of justice or what is right."

One of Gansler's first acts was to appoint Erin Fitzsimmons, then Chesapeake regional director for the Waterkeeper Alliance, as his special assistant for the environment. "It was a demonstration that he was interested in action and not just the status quo," said Cindy Schwartz, executive director of the Maryland League of Conservation Voters.

Since Gansler was elected the state's 44th attorney general, his office has issued more than 100 news releases. A review of those statements reveals Gansler's policy priorities.

He has a keen eye on corporate shenanigans - as settlements, including several multistate actions, with Bayer, Wachovia, AOL, ChoicePoint, pharmaceutical company Purdue Pharma and more, have been announced by his office. The state also landed more than $7.5 million from Ameriquest Mortgage Co. and its related companies after settling a national predatory lending lawsuit.

In response to the brewing concern nationwide that the relationship between colleges and lenders is unacceptably close, Gansler initiated a "code of conduct" for Maryland's university system.

It stipulates, among other things, that colleges may not receive "anything of value" from lenders in exchange for appearing on a school's preferred lender list, and that financial aid officers may not accept anything of "more than nominal value" from lenders.

The governing body of the University System of Maryland directed its 11 member campuses in June to adopt the code. Gansler said he will conduct an in-depth review of the system in Maryland.

But Gansler made perhaps his most visible splash to date on the issue of gang violence.

Gansler argued that his office needed the tools to prosecute gang crimes, a matter not previously addressed in state law. Under the proposal, an individual could be indicted in one county for criminal activity in multiple counties. But Gansler wanted a bill that more closely resembled federal racketeering statutes, and on that count, he and other proponents of the initiative failed.

Talbot County State's Attorney Scott G. Patterson, president of the Maryland State's Attorneys Association, said the gang proposal was a good start but a modest one. One key element of the original bill, allowing authorities to go after gang members' houses, cars and other possessions, was scrapped.

"I don't think that it went far enough," Patterson said.

Future plans?

In all, Gansler wouldn't be Gansler, however, if he didn't make some waves - and provide some plain indications that he is pondering his political future.

His suggestion that the criminal appeals division of his office should be moved from Baltimore to Prince George's County has irritated some who believe the move is intended to help him build relationships in the politically powerful and heavily black community. It's outreach he could capitalize on should he run for another statewide office in the future. Governor, for example.

Gansler, meanwhile, is endorsing Illinois Sen. Barack Obama for president, breaking with O'Malley and Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski, among other high-profile Maryland politicians supporting Hillary Clinton's bid.

"I don't think she can be elected in a general election, and I know he can," said Gansler, co-chairman of Obama's state campaign. " ... I think she's simply too polarizing."

Meanwhile, Gansler's administration, as he calls it sometimes in statements, has suffered one public stumble. The 22-year-old son of civil rights office director Carl O. Snowden was arrested earlier in the summer on charges of possession and intent to distribute marijuana, according to court records. Police searched Carl O. Snowden's Annapolis home, looking for evidence against his son.

Gansler said the investigation of Snowden's son should not reflect on the civil rights director or the office. "It's a private matter for Mr. Snowden and his family and has absolutely no relationship to his performance and job duties," Gansler said.

With Republicans focused on the new governor, Gansler doesn't appear to be registering on the Maryland GOP's radar.

"It is too early in Gansler's term to give a full assessment of his performance, but so far nothing spectacular has come out of his office," said John Flynn, executive director of the state party.

A recent visit to his office indicates that Gansler, an avid recreational lacrosse player and a married father of two from Bethesda, is still getting settled. Boxes of files remain packed and pushed against a wall. But a collection of political props, including a 2000 Democratic Leadership Council button naming him one of the top 100 officials to watch, are well-placed around the room.

There's also the bottle of Seventh Generation dishwashing detergent on an end table, a reminder of a bill he supported (but did not originate) prohibiting the use of ecologically damaging phosphates in cleansers. Dr. Seuss' The Lorax, a cautionary children's tale about deforestation, sits on the coffee table with a book about the Chesapeake Bay. A banner above that poster of Truman reads: "For God, For Country, and For Yale."

Gansler mentioned to a reporter that he recently attended a meeting of the National Association of Attorneys General in Anaheim, Calif. He said that members of the group like to joke that NAAG, as it's known, could be called the "National Association of Aspiring Governors."


Douglas F. Gansler

Maryland attorney general

Age 44

Lives in Montgomery County; married, two sons

Education: Yale University, B.A. in political science and economics, cum laude, 1985; University of Virginia School of Law, J.D., 1989

Background: Montgomery County state's attorney, January 1999 to January 2007; Assistant U.S. Attorney, District of Maryland, 1992-98; former associate, Howrey & Simon, 1990-92; former law clerk to Judge John C. McAuliffe, Court of Appeals; member of the Maryland Bar

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