Michael J. Knapp, the governor's nominee for personnel secretary, said yesterday that he made a mistake in helping to set up a Prince George's County pension program that came to benefit him, the governor and two other top state aides.
Mr. Knapp said, in retrospect, that he should have limited the scope of the pension program so that it only applied to employees whose jobs were abolished for economic reasons, not those like himself who were simply "terminated."
"I regret that my actions have caused problems for you and are taking a tremendous amount of your time," Mr. Knapp told the 19-member Senate Executive Nominations Committee during his confirmation hearing in Annapolis.
"I also regret that I have raised the suspicions of our public. I have made mistakes in my 20 years of public service and this, looking back, was one of them."
After nearly five hours of testimony, the committee approved Mr. Knapp's appointment as well as that of Frank W. Stegman, the nominee for secretary of labor, licensing and regulation.
Both nominations were approved on votes of 11-6. They will go Tuesday to the floor of the Senate, where both men are expected to win final confirmation. The committee votes came after heavy lobbying by Gov. Parris N. Glendening and, in the past few days, had come to be expected.
Mr. Knapp's comments yesterday marked the first time that any of the four officials who stood to benefit from the pension plan, including the governor, has acknowledged a lapse in judgment in its formation.
Governor Glendening, who served as county executive at the time, has insisted that his aides did nothing wrong in setting up the program or benefiting from it. "I am unhappy that an effort has been made to discredit these professionals," Mr. Glendening has said.
Mr. Knapp helped create the program while he was the personnel officer in Prince George's County. Mr. Stegman also approved the pension program as the county labor commissioner. Mr. Knapp eventually benefited from the program; Stegman did not because of his shorter tenure in county government.
News of the pension program surfaced late last month and set off a public uproar when it was reported that Mr. Glendening and three top aides who followed him to Annapolis would receive tens of thousands of dollars in early pension benefits because they had technically been forced from their jobs.
The governor has since said he will give up all benefits from the plan, while his aides have said they will forfeit the benefits until they leave state service.
Mr. Glendening became eligible for the benefits because term limits prohibited him from seeking another term, though he had long said he did not plan to seek re-election as county executive.
Mr. Knapp and the other two aides, Major F. Riddick Jr. and Michele T. Rozner, qualified because Mr. Glendening asked for their resignations from county government before he stepped down as executive.
Yesterday, Mr. Knapp also acknowledged that when he learned of the letter seeking his resignation, he realized that it could trigger the early pension benefits.
"I knew then that I was being asked to resign and that, if in fact my resignation was accepted by the new county executive, that that [early pension] benefit would apply to me," Mr. Knapp said.
Mr. Knapp's comments are in contrast with those of Governor Glendening, who has said that when he sent the resignation letters, he did not realize that some employees would qualify for the generous early pension benefits as a result. Mr. Glendening has said he asked for the resignations to make it easier for his successor to bring in his own people.
related news yesterday, Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr. announced to the Senate that if the Prince George's County executive and County Council do not move to roll back the pension benefits awarded to the governor and his top aides, he will ask the General Assembly to do so.
Mr. Miller said he requested and has received an opinion from the attorney general that says the assembly has authority not only to pass legislation limiting the county pension payouts, but can do so retroactively.
"I intend to draft such a bill," Mr. Miller said, inviting senators who wished to co-sponsor the bill to add their names.
Prince George's Executive Wayne K. Curry and the County Council are currently investigating all of the county's pension plans. There is not a timetable for when pension reform legislation may be offered to the council.