- The Washington Times - Thursday, November 28, 2002

The Maryland State Prosecutor's Office will inquire into whether Gov.-elect Robert L. Ehrlich Jr.'s campaign committee intentionally broke election laws by concealing a campaign contribution until after the election.
The investigation was prompted by reports in the Baltimore Sun that campaign managers did not report as contributions the use of a helicopter linked to a Maryland media company that Mr. Ehrlich helped deal with the Federal Communications Commission.
Mr. Ehrlich, a Baltimore County congressman, was accused last year of breaking FCC rules by writing agency Chairman Michael K. Powell on behalf of Baltimore-based Sinclair Broadcasting. The helicopter was owned by a company set up by J. Duncan Smith, Sinclair's director and senior executive.
"The fact that it was reported only after it was discovered by the press that's a basis for me to look into it," Maryland State Prosecutor Stephen Montanarelli said yesterday. He said the inquiry was not a criminal investigation.
Mr. Montanarelli said the charge of failing to report the contribution probably will not apply because campaigns have 30 days to file an amended report after the Maryland Elections Board cites the error.
The Ehrlich campaign filed the report yesterday and characterized the situation as an "oversight."
Mr. Montanarelli said the amended report creates a "moot" issue, but he will continue reviewing state election laws to see whether other charges could be brought should the inquiry lead to a criminal investigation.
In July 1999, at the urging of Democratic state legislators, Mr. Montanarelli sought an indictment against federal employee Linda Tripp for recording telephone conversations with co-worker Monica Lewinsky about her sexual relationship with President Clinton. The recordings were used during the investigation that led to the impeachment of President Clinton.
Mr. Montanarelli said the case was not politically motivated and dropped the charges after a Howard County judge suppressed testimony from Miss Lewinsky.
In the Ehrlich case, the campaign officers would be subject to prosecution, but Mr. Ehrlich could be charged if he is found to be involved in a conspiracy to evade election laws. Violations of election law typically carry a one-year prison term or a maximum $25,000 fine, or both.
Mr. Ehrlich's campaign chartered the six-passenger executive helicopter eight times during and immediately after the governor's race, paying $1,000 an hour instead of the usual $2,500 an hour. After recent criticism, the campaign committee this week paid $2,450 an hour, for a total of $34,300.
Campaign spokesman Paul Schurick said the finance report filed yesterday lists $7,700 of the total charge as in-kind contributions from Whirlwind Aviation Inc. to Mr. Ehrlich's campaign committee and that of Lt. Gov.-elect Michael S. Steele. He also said the committee already had paid $24,300 to Whirlwind.
Mr. Ehrlich told WBAL Radio yesterday that there was nothing improper or unusual about letters he wrote the FCC on behalf of Baltimore-based Sinclair Broadcasting, which owns WBFF-TV in Baltimore and has ties to Frederick-based Whirlwind.
Mr. Ehrlich said he wrote "thousands" of similar letters on behalf of other corporate and individual constituents during his eight years in Congress.
An FCC attorney said yesterday that Mr. Ehrlich's letter last year on behalf of Sinclair had violated rules barring ex parte communication contact with FCC decision-makers that is not shared with all parties in the case. Mr. Ehrlich corrected the error by sending subsequent letters to the parties.
"It is not uncommon for the commission to receive inquires that violate the ex parte rule," the attorney said. The attorney also said Mr. Ehrlich was not fined or charged with breaking the law.
Mr. Ehrlich's queries to the FCC stemmed from a proposed series of transactions that would allow Sinclair to purchase a group of television stations including WNUV-TV in Baltimore despite federal regulations limiting the number of stations a company can own in smaller markets.
In the letters, Mr. Ehrlich said that he understood that the Rev. Jesse Jackson opposed the applications, and that he would back a congressional investigation if delays in the case appeared politically motivated.
On at least four other occasions while he was in the House of Representatives, Mr. Ehrlich wrote to urge FCC officials to make policy decisions that would help Sinclair.
Ross Goldstein, director of campaign finance for the Maryland Elections Board, said the law does not prohibit contributions from people who received political aid from a candidate.
Mr. Goldstein said that he received the amended report yesterday from the Ehrlich campaign, and that it was not unusual for a campaign to file an amended report.
James Browning, executive director of the government watchdog group Common Cause of Maryland, said the combination of Mr. Ehrlich's letter and the helicopter rides created "the appearance of paying to influence policy. There is the appearance of corruption."
Mr. Schurick said an attempt to link the letters to the helicopter rides was absurd.


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