Gov. Parris N. Glendening should not have been eligible for early pension benefits from Prince George's County, Maryland's attorney general said yesterday.
County legal advisers determined last year that Mr. Glendening and two former county council members qualified for tens of thousands of dollars in early payments under a pension program because they were "involuntarily separated" from their jobs by virtue of term limits.
But Attorney General J. Joseph Curran Jr. disagreed with that opinion yesterday, saying the program was intended to protect employees who might be laid off for economic reasons -- not elected officials prohibited from seeking another term.
"To say that a term limit 'involuntarily separates' an elected official from office is to stretch the language so that it covers a situation far from the problem intended to be addressed," Mr. Curran said in a written statement.
While the attorney general's opinion may have political ramifications, it does not have the force of law. Mr. Curran issued it in response to a request from Republican Robert H. Kittleman, the House minority leader.
But Wayne K. Curry, who succeeded Mr. Glendening as county executive, already has said he plans to abolish the early-benefits program.
Mr. Glendening downplayed the attorney general's opinion, saying it affirmed the adage that if you ask 10 lawyers a question, you can get 10 different answers. But he added, "I think that [Mr. Curran's] opinion takes on extra weight because he is the adviser to the governor. So I will go forward and strictly follow his interpretation without any contesting."
The Prince George's pension program sparked an uproar last month when it was reported that Mr. Glendening and three top aides would receive the early pension payments -- payments roughly 50 percent higher than usual -- because they had been "involuntarily separated."
Mr. Glendening was deemed eligible by virtue of term limits, his aides because he had asked them to resign from Prince George's before rehiring them to work for the state.
Amid criticism, the governor and his aides agreed to forfeit the benefits until they left state service or reached the normal retirement age of 55.
Yesterday, Mr. Glendening said he also would give up the portion of his benefits representing the extra 50 percent. For Mr. Glendening, the yearly benefit would have totaled $21,165 a year for life.
The attorney general's opinion was seen by some in Annapolis yesterday as a blow to the governor, who has maintained that he had done nothing wrong in initially accepting the pension money and was only following the advice of legal counsel.
However, the opinion was not expected to have much effect on the confirmation hearings today for two Glendening aides -- Michael J. Knapp and Frank W. Stegman -- who helped put the controversial pension program in place.
The governor has nominated Mr. Knapp, who was personnel officer in Prince George's, to be the state secretary of personnel. Mr. Stegman, the county's former labor commissioner, is under consideration for state secretary of labor, licensing and regulation.
As members of the county's supplemental pension board, the two men approved the early-benefits program. Mr. Knapp was )) eligible to benefit from it when he left Upper Marlboro, while Mr. Stegman was not because of his shorter tenure with the county.
Democratic legislators said yesterday that they thought the governor had locked up enough votes on the 19-member Senate Executive Nominations Committee to assure confirmation of both men.
"There's been an extensive lobbying effort on behalf of these candidates and I think that in terms of the committee votes both nominations will prevail," said Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr., a Prince George's Democrat and sometime Glendening critic.
Meanwhile, the four Republican members of the nominations committee asked that Mr. Stegman and Mr. Knapp be put under oath during the hearing, making them subject to perjury charges.
"I've been inundated with calls by Marylanders who want to know the truth behind the pension plan of Prince George's County," said Sen. Larry E. Haines of Carroll County.
Baltimore State Sen. Larry Young, who chairs the nominations committee and was a strong supporter of Mr. Glendening in the fall election, said yesterday he sees no need to use an oath because neither nominee has been accused of breaking the law.
Governor Glendening, when asked about the Republicans' request, said: "I think it would be unfortunate if Maryland got involved in some of the militant partisan maneuvers that you see in other states."
Requiring a witness to give sworn testimony before a Senate committee is rare. Although judges are required to do so, it has been at least 15 years since anyone else has been asked to testify under oath, state officials said.
Republicans also asked yesterday that Senator Young postpone the confirmation hearing until Monday when Eric M. Tucker, the third former pension trustee from Prince George's County, is available to testify. Mr. Tucker, who now is finance director for Detroit, is the only person involved in the program's creation who has publicly criticized the way it came to benefit Mr. Glendening and his aides.
Officials said Mr. Tucker could not come to Maryland today because he has a budget hearing in Michigan, but that he could be here Monday. Mr. Young, however, said he intended to hold the hearing today anyway.
He said the committee could hear Mr. Tucker Monday and reconsider its vote if necessary.
On the Senate floor yesterday, Mr. Young seemed to inadvertently indicate where his sentiments stood on the nominees' confirmation. Asked when the committee intended to vote, Mr. Young said, "If the votes are there, we're going to proceed."