Shill, baby, shill?

When former Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. chose for his post-political career a job heading up a new Baltimore office of a major corporate law firm from North Carolina, he opened himself up for legitimate criticism. The firm, Womble Carlyle, has a long history representing tobacco producers, and its other clients include big pharmaceutical firms, foreign corporations and some oil companies. This is not exactly working in a soup kitchen, and Gov. Martin O'Malley's campaign is well within its rights to question whether the Republican former governor has spent the last four years putting people first or earning big paychecks looking out for the interests of unsympathetic corporations.

But the governor's new radio ad accusing Mr. Ehrlich of being a big oil lobbyist goes too far.

The ad repeats a snippet from the former governor's radio show in which Mr. Ehrlich echoes the catch phrase coined by his former lieutenant governor, "Drill, baby, drill." An announcer says, "As oil coats the gulf coast, that's the voice of big oil lobbyist Bob Ehrlich." Of course, that particular snippet was recorded in 2008, and the claim that Mr. Ehrlich is a "big oil lobbyist" in the conventional definition of the term is a stretch at best. Mr. Ehrlich's job at his law firm is as a "rainmaker," a big name who can use his connections to bring in lucrative clients. He is not a registered lobbyist on the local, state or federal level. That doesn't absolve him of responsibility for the business his law firm does, but it doesn't make him Jack Abramoff, either.

The most damaging claim Mr. O'Malley's campaign makes in the ad is that "when 80,000 gallons of oil spilled in South Baltimore, Bob Ehrlich was the lobbyist representing the oil company." Does that mean Mr. Ehrlich was prowling the corridors of City Hall or the State House to convince regulators or legislators to absolve the company that spilled the heating oil? No. His office — but not the former governor personally — defended Center Point Terminal Baltimore LLC and the Petroleum Fuel & Terminal Company against charges by the Maryland Department of the Environment that the companies had spilled the heating oil and been slow to notify authorities and clean it up. They eventually settled. That's not noble, but it's not lobbying, either.

The ad also says that "when big oil wanted to avoid paying millions in royalties for drilling rights, Bob Ehrlich voted yes" and "when they wanted to open new parts of the gulf for drilling, Ehrlich voted with big oil again." On its website, the O'Malley campaign lists the specific bills as evidence, and indeed, Mr. Ehrlich did vote for them. But so did the other members of Maryland's congressional delegation, including then-Rep. Benjamin Cardin and Sen. Barbara Mikulski, who are now heading up strong opposition to expanded offshore drilling. If those votes are evidence that Mr. Ehrlich is in the pocket of big oil, then so are Sens. Cardin and Mikulski.

It's understandable that the O'Malley campaign would seek to capitalize on voters' passions about the gulf oil spill, but the ad fails to address the one way in which the issue is actually germane to the Maryland governor's race: Do the candidates favor an expansion of oil drilling off the Atlantic coast? That's a key question, considering Virginia's historic eagerness to drill — and the likelihood that any spill there would foul Maryland's beaches and the Chesapeake Bay.

Mr. O'Malley wrote to the Interior Department last November to express opposition to Atlantic oil exploration, though he was caught a bit flat-footed when he found himself sitting in the audience at Andrews Air Force Base this spring when President Obama announced his administration would support new exploration on the East Coast. Mr. O'Malley momentarily waffled somewhat in his stance, but he has resumed strong opposition to the idea since then.

And what about Mr. Ehrlich? Does the supposed lobbyist for big oil support drilling off the Atlantic coast? The former governor advocates increased oil exploration but said recently that we have "plenty of better venues" than off the East Coast. A spokesman yesterday reiterated that Mr. Ehrlich opposes drilling here. He does favor drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge — also a bad idea, but one he would be unlikely to have much influence in pursuing as governor of Maryland.

Mr. Ehrlich's choice to work in corporate law should give the O'Malley campaign plenty of chances to draw a contrast between the two candidates, but this ad goes too far on too little evidence.

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