Jervis S. Finney, chief counsel to Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., has begun questioning members of the media - including two Sun reporters - about "MD4BUSH," an anonymous contributor to a Web site that posted rumors about Mayor Martin O'Malley.
Finney said he was asking the questions as part of his investigation into the activities of Joseph F. Steffen Jr., an aide to the governor who was fired Feb. 8 for his involvement in spreading the rumors about O'Malley's personal life.
O'Malley has vehemently denied the rumors.
MD4BUSH had several Web log exchanges with Steffen about the O'Malley rumors and gathered a number of Steffen's most damaging postings in an easy-to-find location on the Web shortly after the story reporting Steffens' connection with the rumors broke on a media Web site.
In a Feb. 16 letter to Sun reporter Michael Dresser, Finney cited a federal appeals court panel's decision this week that undercuts reporters' right to shield their sources. In a separate letter to Sun columnist Michael Olesker, Finney asked "whether you are in fact 'MD4BUSH.'"
Olesker and Dresser said they had no knowledge of MD4BUSH.
"Of course I'm not that guy," Olesker said in an interview. "It's not me, and I have no idea who it is."
Dresser said, "I am not MD4BUSH, and I would not care to speculate who MD4BUSH might be."
Finney's questions followed Freedom of Information Act requests by The Sun and other media about details of the administration's investigation into Steffen's activities. Dresser made The Sun's Freedom of Information Act request.
Finney's decision to question members of the media troubled one lawmaker who called for the investigation by the Ehrlich administration, as well as legal and media experts.
"I hope he's not doing this on state time," said Sen. Brian E. Frosh, a Montgomery County Democrat. "It's a waste of taxpayers' money.
"It's not his job to ask the question; it's not [the media's] job to answer," Frosh said. "It's the other way around."
Olesker and Dresser appear to be the only ones to have received written questions this week as part of the investigation.
Finney said in an interview that he "verbally" asked other media members about MD4BUSH and intends to follow up in written form. He said the decision to question the media is part of his effort to conduct a thorough investigation into the spreading of the rumors about the mayor.
"I am trying to seek information that is relevant to the governor - whether a state employee or official might be MD4BUSH," Finney said.
In support of his decision to question the media, Finney cited the U.S. Court of Appeals case involving reporters Matthew Cooper of Time and Judith Miller of The New York Times, who face contempt-of-court charges for refusing to tell prosecutors about their confidential talks with an official or officials in the Bush White House who revealed the identity of a CIA operative.
In that case, he said, it was suggested that there are times when it is appropriate for the media to reveal information and sources.
"It's up to the newspaper whether this is one of those times," Finney said. "It's entirely appropriate for me to ask the question. If you all are going to decline to answer the question, then so be it."
The course of Finney's investigation left some experts wondering where the administration intends to go with its probe.
Rebecca Daugherty, Freedom of Information Center director at the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, said the use of the Cooper and Miller case in a response to an information request appeared to be an attempt to block access to information.
"It sounds to me as if he is threatening to subpoena reporters for information if you go forward with your FOI request," Daugherty said. "Has he ever had a course in American government?"
Eric Easton, an associate professor at the School of Law who specializes in media law, said The Sun's Freedom of Information request and Finney's letters look like an escalation of the battle between the Ehrlich administration and The Sun over the governor's order that state employees not speak to Olesker and reporter David Nitkin.
This week, a U.S. District Court judge dismissed a case filed by The Sun against the governor in the matter. The newspaper has vowed to appeal.
Easton said it is within Finney's purview to question reporters about MD4BUSH. But he said the case of Cooper and Miller should not have been invoked because it is a federal case that does not apply in Maryland, where the law protecting reporters' sources and information is among the strongest in the nation.
"To even bring that case up is really preposterous," Easton said.
Yesterday, the Ehrlich administration supported Finney's decision to question reporters and promised that the investigation would continue to be aggressive.
"Inquiries related to the identity of MD4BUSH is part of the investigation ... requested by Governor Ehrlich," said Shareese N. DeLeaver, a spokeswoman for the governor. "This is intended to be a thorough investigation that will include leaving no rock unturned."
In his letter to Olesker, Finney also challenged an Olesker column that cited a report by Channel 11 reporter David Collins about Ehrlich's knowledge of the O'Malley rumor. Finney criticized Olesker for an "inaccuracy" that Finney said portrayed Ehrlich as never having "heard of the existence of any of the subject rumors."
Collins told The Sun that when he interviewed Ehrlich on Feb. 9, he did ask him whether he had heard of the rumor involving O'Malley. "It was clear in my mind and my photographer's mind that we were asking the governor specifically about the rumor, not if he had any knowledge about the Web site," Collins said.
Collins said he had also asked Ehrlich about knowledge of the Web site during that interview, but he specifically asked about the rumor twice in that interview.