"The Robert and Kendel Ehrlich Show," which airs for two hours each Saturday morning on WBAL-AM, should not be considered a campaign contribution, the Maryland attorney general's office said in a letter released Monday.
The letter came as advice to the State Board of Elections after the Maryland Democratic Party complained to the board that the show is essentially an unreported in-kind campaign contribution from the station to former Republican Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., who is trying to reclaim the state's top job from Democratic Gov. Martin O'Malley.
In an 11-page letter to Elections Administrator Linda H. Lamone, Assistant Attorney General Jeffrey L. Darsie advised the elections board that a court likely would not find the show in violation of any state election laws and that attempts to "regulate media appearances by a candidate, potential candidate or others through a state's campaign finance laws" could run afoul of the First Amendment.
"This is true even where the person appearing has some practical control over the content of the broadcast, including as host," the assistant attorney general wrote. He outlined several factors, including the show's three-year run, that he said tend to negate the Democrats' assertion that the show is a campaign vehicle for Ehrlich.
"We're certainly pleased to have it out of the way," said Andy Barth, Ehrlich's campaign spokesman. "We're pleased to be vindicated."
Ehrlich has said he plans to stay on the air until he officially files his candidacy with the elections board in July, at which time his wife, Kendel, might take over full hosting duties. The radio station said it vetted the legality of the Ehrlich show with lawyers before determining he could continue. The station, which has carried the Ehrlichs' show since 2007, also said it has offered equal time to O'Malley for years now.
Responding to the attorney general's letter, Maryland Democratic Party Chairwoman Susan Turnbull said Ehrlich is "exploiting a technicality in the law."
"Today's opinion is not surprising given that Bob Ehrlich is using a loophole in the law to keep his talk show on WBAL-radio," Turnbull said in a statement.
The Democratic Party also has complained that Ehrlich's employer, the law firm Womble Carlyle Sandridge & Rice, is giving Ehrlich in-kind campaign contributions in the form of firm employees and a de facto headquarters in Baltimore.
An attorney for Ehrlich said the former governor is not an official gubernatorial candidate in the eyes of the law and becomes one only after filing his candidacy paperwork with the elections board. The Board of Elections has sought the attorney general's advice on that issue, too, and is awaiting a response.