March 25, 2010

ACORN, ACLU will continue to sue Md. as panel rejects settlement

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By Andy Rosen
Andy@MarylandReporter.com

The state is refusing to accept a $60,000 agreement that the Office of the Attorney General reached with the American Civil Liberties Union and ACORN (Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now).

The Board of Public Works Wednesday rejected the settlement that would have resolved a long-standing dispute over an Ehrlich-administration Maryland Transit Administration prohibition on political activity at public transportation properties.

The rejection means that the matter will go back to court, said Deborah Jeon, legal director for the ACLU of Maryland.

The money would have paid for legal fees the organizations say they racked up in a challenge to the rule. The O’Malley administration stopped enforcing it but is apparently still in the process of revising it.

The legal issue cropped up as ACORN organizers attempting to register low-income voters in the runup to the 2006 election were turned away from train and bus stations.

“The state and the MTA acted unconstitutionally, and litigation was required and was actually quite expensive,” Jeon said. “The bills are ultimately going to be higher, not lower.”

Gov. Martin O’Malley said at the Board of Public Works meeting that he did not understand why the cost of the legal fees was so high. He said he saw the issue as uncomplicated.

“It just seems like a lot of money for something that was fixed with a call to the attorney general’s office,” O’Malley said.

A U.S. District Court judge didn’t order the state to stop using the regulations because the administration had already halted enforcement. But it did grant nominal damages of $1 to each plaintiff.

The organizations have since been fighting for attorney’s fees. Jeon said much of the work had to do with advocating for new, fairer regulations.

The BPW, which consists of O’Malley, Treasurer Nancy Kopp and Comptroller Peter Franchot, had received advice from the attorney general that said the settlement was in the interest of the state. But that document was not made public, as lawyers cited attorney-client privilege.

In an unusual move, the BPW actually did not vote on the settlement.  Kopp moved to approve it, and neither O’Malley or Franchot offered a second.