Governor is dissatisfied with Sun investigation

The Ehrlich administration said yesterday that it was unsatisfied with the results of a four-month investigation by The Sun's public editor that found all but a handful of its complaints about the newspaper's coverage of the governor to be unfounded.

"We find it lackluster and inadequate," said Shareese N. DeLeaver, a spokeswoman for Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. "We gave specific instances of various inaccuracies and mistakes, and the administration does not feel they were adequately addressed with this editor's column."

The Sun published yesterday the results of public editor Paul Moore's investigation into a list of 23 grievances provided by the administration. Moore called Ehrlich's claims of grievous, purposeful mistakes "grossly exaggerated."

The complaints were given privately to Sun executives in December, after the administration had banned state executive branch employees from speaking with Sun columnist Michael Olesker and State House bureau chief David Nitkin. The ban remains in effect.

Ehrlich said yesterday afternoon that he had not read Moore's report. He said, "I look forward to the day when we can just get over it."

Sun editor Timothy A. Franklin said the newspaper's investigation demonstrated its commitment to accuracy. The newspaper has corrected or clarified four items on the list.

"Hopefully it shows our readers that we've taken the governor's complaints very seriously," Franklin said. "We've invested a lot of time and effort in looking into his complaints, and to the best of our ability have tried to correct or clarify mistakes that we made."

Franklin took issue with statements from the administration questioning Moore's independence. DeLeaver described Moore's work as "the equivalent of the fox guarding the henhouse."

As public editor, Moore reports directly to publisher Denise A. Palmer, not to Franklin or any newsroom editor. Franklin said Moore's investigation was "thorough and credible" and did not pull punches.

But DeLeaver, the Ehrlich spokeswoman, said the investigation was lacking. She pointed to two instances in which the administration accused Olesker of misquoting state Del. John S. Arnick and Ehrlich communications director Paul E. Schurick.

Moore found no trouble with the columns. Moore wrote that Olesker had notes from the Schurick interview and a "clear and detailed recollection" of the Arnick interview.

"It's the equivalent of, 'He said, she said,'" DeLeaver said. "It's not the response we were looking for."

The list of grievances, along with more than 130 pages of administration documents regarding the ban, was released yesterday in response to public information requests filed by the Maryland Gazette and The Sun.

The documents included internal administration e-mails about articles that appeared in The Sun and copies of letters between Jervis S. Finney, the governor's chief counsel, and Stephanie S. Abrutyn, a lawyer with the Tribune Co., which owns The Sun. The letters dealt largely with procedure, including the timing and terms of the December meeting between Ehrlich and Sun officials.

The administration imposed the ban on Nitkin and Olesker in November. It came after Nitkin had written articles detailing the state's plan to sell 836 acres of preserved forestland in St. Mary's County to Willard Hackerman, a politically connected construction company owner, in a transaction that could have netted him millions in tax breaks.

The Sun filed a lawsuit in the U.S. District Court, arguing that the ban violated the First Amendment rights of the two journalists by denying them the same opportunities to seek information as other news organizations and citizens. The paper also said the writers were being punished for their speech.

A federal judge dismissed The Sun's lawsuit in February, and the newspaper has appealed to the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Richmond, Va.