David Nitkin on the O'Malley rumors

Baltimore Mayor Martin O'Malley and his wife, Catherine, today walk outside City Hall, where the couple denounced rumors of infidelity spread by an aide to Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr.
Baltimore Mayor Martin O'Malley and his wife, Catherine, today walk outside City Hall, where the couple denounced rumors of infidelity spread by an aide to Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. (Sun photo by Christopher T. Assaf)
Kim MacLean, Ellicott City: I find it very hard to believe that someone without a college degree could apply for and get a job as head of communications for a state agency without someone exerting influence. Is there a job description with education requirements listed for [Joseph F.] Steffen [Jr.'s] former position? Just curious.

Nitkin: Kim, I am sure there is a job description, but I can't get my hands on it easily. I agree it would be highly unusual to create a description for a relatively high-level position paying more than $70,000 without a college degree as a prerequisite. The government and the private sector, however, often recognize real-world experience as a possible substitute for such degrees.

Susan McIntire, Towson: Do you really believe that [Gov. Robert L.] Ehrlich [Jr.] had never heard of the rumors, as he was quoted in The Sun?

Nitkin: Susan, Gov. Ehrlich has now refined his answer, and has said "you have to have been under a rock" not to have heard the rumor. He blames his earlier answer about saying he had never heard the rumor on the swirl of questions surrounding him one day last week.

Alisa Bralove-Scherr, Owings Mills: What is The Sun's rationale for not reporting on the rumor sooner? It's been out there for quite a while, and whether it's true or false, hasn't the existence of it been news for some time now?

Nitkin: Alisa, let's distinguish between "reporting" on the rumor and actually publishing a story on it. The Sun did investigate tips it received surrounding the rumor, and, it is safe to say, none of them have been verified. But even if they had been, there is no guarantee a story would have appeared in the paper.

After pursuing the reporting and finding evidence, there would have been a whole series of discussions about whether the information would have warranted a news story. Factors we would have considered would have been whether the situation was some sort of violation of public -- not just private -- trust; and whether public resources were involved or impacted.

Susan Steele, Baltimore: If Steffen was just "reporting" on rumors that he heard, who (specifically) was he hearing it from and where did that person(s) get the "information"?

Nitkin: Susan, it sure is hard to find the one, single person who was the originator of a story or rumor. Who started the story about Mikey, the Life cereal kid, dying after eating Pop Rocks? Suffice to say, the rumor is out there. There is no proof yet that Steffen was the source of it.

D. Lynnette Price, Baltimore: As a constituent of Maryland, I want a full investigation into this matter, and I want an investigation of the possible abuse of power that happened under Steffen's tenure with state government. I would like to understand the steps I need to take to petition for an investigation.

Nitkin: Lynnette, there is little you as an individual can do to "petition" for a full investigation. Your best bet would be to contact your elected officials, as well as the leadership in the General Assembly, to tell them how you feel. Absent any clear indication of a violation of law, the Assembly is best positioned -- and is considering -- an investigation into the Steffen affair and other administration practices.

Ray Van de Castle, Hanover, Pa.: This sounds like something Karl Rove would push from his White House office; is there any connection between Steffen and Rove -- maybe a seminar on dirty politics?

Nitkin: Ray, that's an interesting question. After [Baltimore Mayor Martin] O'Malley's re-election last year, Senate President Mike Miller sent the mayor a copy of a lengthy Atlantic magazine article on Rove and his tactics, and told the mayor "this is what you are up against." We know of no connection between Steffen and Rove.

Bob Price, Lutherville: In his Feb. 10 column, [The Sun's] Dan Rodricks wrote that Joe Steffen is the "source of ... rumors" about Martin O'Malley. Has it been established or is there any evidence that Steffen is the "source" of the rumors rather than merely one of perhaps thousands of people who have been repeating a rumor that has been circulating for years?

Nitkin: Bob, no. There is no solid evidence that Steffen is the source of the rumors. In fact, posters on the FreeRepublic Web site, which Steffen was using, note that it would be a strange tactic to use a site devoted national politics to spread what is really a local or regional rumor.

Sean, Owings Mills: How do you know this Steffen fellow posted the info on the Web site? In other words, how do you know Steffen [posted under the handle] "ncpac"?

Nitkin: Sean, Steffen has personally confirmed in an interview with The Sun that he is "ncpac." He used to work for NCPAC, or the National Conservative Political Action Committee.

Tony, Baltimore: How can O'Malley blame the governor personally if the rumors started prior to him taking office and the promulgating took place far away from the State House?

Nitkin: Tony, O'Malley has said there was an organized and coordinated effort to spread the rumor, but he has not blamed the governor personally.

Jeff Wilson, Baltimore: If the rumors about the mayor have been going around for months, how come it is coming out now that somebody from a rival party mentions it?

Nitkin: Jeff, the reason The Sun published the story last week was because the governor immediately forced the resignation of his aide, Steffen, after learning he had posted e-mails about the rumor. The information was provided to the governor by The Washington Post, which, likely, would have published a story that day even if Steffen had not been forced to resign, based on being able to link Steffen to the Internet postings.

For The Sun, the firing was the triggering, newsworthy event. Additionally, we followed up because O'Malley spoke publicly the next day for the first time, addressing the rumors and refuting them. We did not publish a story prior to last week because the rumors were just that -- rumors, and unsubstantiated ones at that.

Richard Krueger, Linthicum: Why aren't journalists piecing together and detailing to the public this seemingly corrupt administration of Ehrlich? First, his administration tries to sell environmentally sensitive land to a secret campaign contributor. Then, they divert attention by blaming The Sun paper. Then, they fire state employees because of their political affiliation, and now we find his friends smearing a popular political figure who will probably be a political opponent.

Forget about the fact that he hired [Clarence M.] Mitchell [IV] and [former Gov. Marvin] Mandel -- doesn't anyone at The Sun see a pattern here? Still today, no one talks about his asbestos vote as a state legislator when his law firm represented asbestos manufacturers. Maybe these problems are more the result of a weak and timid press. What are you afraid of?

Nitkin: Richard, every one of the stories you mention has been written about, and given much prominence, in The Sun. We broke several of the stories you reference. I see no evidence of a timid press. Indeed, I don't think the governor would have banned state government from speaking with me and columnist Michael Olesker if he thought we were timid.

Marcus Shawn Knowles: Aren't the rumors much older than the actions of Ehrlich's administration staff? And will The Sun seek to verify the veracity of the mayor's statement?

Nitkin: Marcus, yes, some versions of the rumor pre-date the Ehrlich administration, and some specific variants emerged after. I assume you are referring to the mayor's statement that he has been faithful to his wife. I don't think we will proactively try to verify that statement, but if someone provided us with evidence to the contrary, we would pursue it.

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