A series of emails between Gov. Martin O'Malley and Perdue's corporate lawyer shows what an environmental group calls a "cozy relationship" between the two law school classmates as Maryland's chief executive weighs farm pollution regulations of concern to the Salisbury-based poultry producer.
Food & Water Watch, a Washington-based environmental group, obtained 70 pages of emails through Maryland's public information act between O'Malley and Herbert D. Frerichs Jr., a partner with the Venable law firm in Baltimore who is also general counsel for the Perdue family holding company that owns and operates Perdue Food Products, Perdue AgriBusinessand other entities.
In the emails, which date from July 2010 through November 2011, the governor conferred with Frerichs on proposals to generate energy from burning poultry manure and on legislation O'Malley sought to boost prospects for offshore wind farms. Perdue has expressed interest in producing energy from chicken "litter," and the state has solicited proposals to build one, but has yet to award the contract. O'Malley sought Frerichs' help, meanwhile, in overcoming opposition among Perdue and other poultry industry officials to his plan for putting a commercial wind farm off Ocean City. O'Malley's wind legislation failed last year and again this year.
O'Malley also asked Frerichs what he didn't like about state Agriculture Secretary Earl F. "Buddy" Hance, and asked the lawyer's advice in trying soothe Perdue chairman Jim Perdue's ruffled feelings over printed comments by the governor's then-press secretary that poultry companies need to help in cleaning up the Chesapeake Bay. Frerichs had emailed O'Malley that his spokesman's comments upset Perdue.
Food & Water Watch's Wenonah Hauter writes in a blog post about the emails that they "paint a portrait of a head of state who walks on eggshells around the chicken industry."
"Never TOO busy to hear from you," O'Malley emailed Frerichs last fall as the lawyer, who also sits on the board of the Living Classrooms Foundation, pressed the governor to provide state funding for a new education building on the Inner Harbor's Pier 1 by the USS Constellation, which the foundation oversees.
In one exchange, the two confer on where a law school might be willing to set up a clinic to provide legal assistance to farmers. Perdue is a defendant, along with an Eastern Shore farm couple, in a lawsuit brought by the University of Maryland's environmental law clinic, accusing them of polluting a bay tributary in Worcester County. UM's role in the suit has angered many poultry industry supportesr, and O'Malley - like Frerichs a UM law grad - wrote a letter in November to the school's dean sharply criticizing its involvement and saying it ought to be defending the farm family instead of suing it. Frerichs emailed O'Malley "very nice" on the day last November when the governor's letter leaked to the press.
In another exchange, after Frerichs complains that Perdue is "doing more to save agriculture in the state of md than the secretary of ag," O'Malley asks the poultry company lawyer for details on what his agriculture secretary can do to help Perdue and promises to have Hance call Frerichs.
Spokeswomen for Perdue and O'Malley both defended the emails.
"It's no secret that Gov. O'Malley and Herb Frerichs have known each other since attending law school together," Perdue spokeswoman Julie DeYoung said in an email. "Part of Herb's job is to advocate for the company in legal and governmental affairs. The emails simply show him doing his job."
Raquel Guillory, the governor's communications director, said the environmental group was misinterpreting O'Malley's tone as uniformly deferential. The governor was in fact being sarcastic, Guillory said, when he wrote the Perdue lawyer that he doubted Frerichs had the personal email addresses of the governors of Delaware and Virginia.
But Food & Water Watch's Hauter accused O'Malley of "shameful pandering to big chicken." And she warned that O'Malley may be yielding to pressure from Perdue and the rest of the poultry industry again as he prepares to release new farm pollution regulations. The state Department of Agriculture initially proposed last year tightening rules on when, where and how animal manure and sewage sludge could be used as fertilizer on crops, but withdrew them for more study after they were roundly criticized by both farm and environmental groups.
Administration officials were scheduled to meet today with representatives of farming and environmental groups to discuss the pending rules.
"The Governor's Office has been soliciting feedback from numerous stakeholders in recent weeks to consider all views on this issue," Takirra Winfield, deputy press secretary, said in an email.
UPDATE: For another take on the emails, see my colleague Annie Linskey's post in the Maryland Politics blog here. She also reports that about the time the email exchanges with Perdue's lawyer began, the poultry producer's pattern of political giving shifted.
Perdue wrote annual checks to the Republican Governors Association until 2010, she reports, when the company suddenly also started donating to the Democratic Governors Association, which is headed by Gov. Martin O'Malley. The firm gave the DGA $10,000 in 2010 and $15,000 in January 2012.