30 appointees dismissed in Ehrlich purge

Letters were anticipated by many of those who serve in top Md. posts

Jobs to end at noon tomorrow

Some of the firings, including two at DNR, come as a surprise

January 14, 2003|By Sarah Koenig and Candus Thomson | Sarah Koenig and Candus Thomson,SUN STAFF

Thirty of the state's top government appointees were handed politely worded pink slips yesterday telling them that as of noon tomorrow - the hour of Gov.-elect Robert L. Ehrlich Jr.'s swearing-in ceremony - they should clear out.

The letters are the first official sign of the coming purge by the Ehrlich administration as the new governor prepares to install the state's first Republican government in more than 30 years.

"The incoming Administration recognizes your valuable contributions on behalf of the State of Maryland," the five-paragraph letter states.

The letter goes on to say that the voters back the governor's personnel decisions. "The people of this State have voted for a change in State government. Our intention is to make immediate changes in the Governor's cabinet and key personnel in order to begin implementing a new vision for the future of Maryland.

"Please be advised that upon the swearing-in of the new Governor at 12:00 p.m. on January 15, 2003, the new Governor's appointees will be assuming responsibility for your position."

The letter is signed by Lawrence J. Hogan Jr., whom Ehrlich has tapped as secretary of appointments.

Ehrlich spokesman Henry Fawell said 30 copies of the letter, dated Jan. 11, were sent to the "top leadership at the state's 18 major departments." He declined to provide a list.

Some departments received only one or two letters. Others, such as the Department of Business and Economic Development, received five, said spokeswoman Tori Leonard.

Many state employees who serve at the pleasure of the sitting governor have been bracing for just such a letter. Still, their arrivals created a gloomy stir in Annapolis yesterday - and stories about a mysterious, trench-coated figure carrying the fateful letters in a briefcase.

While some firing decisions were a foregone conclusion, others came as something of a surprise. Letters delivered to the Department of Natural Resources were of both varieties.

Deputy Secretary Karen White and assistant secretaries Sumita Chaudhuri, Verna Harrison and Carolyn Watson - the department's four most senior women - were handed the pink slips as they arrived for work.

The fourth assistant secretary - 22-year veteran Michael Nelson - was not affected.

A man - whom Fawell refused to identify - dropped off three of the letters in departing DNR Secretary J. Charles Fox's office. The fourth - Watson's - was delivered in the elevator as the assistant secretary was showing the man to Fox's office.

"It was like something out of a movie," Watson said.

White and Watson have personal ties to the departing administration. White was campaign manager for Gov. Parris N. Glendening's 1998 re-election effort and took leave in the summer to help resuscitate the flagging campaign of Kathleen Kennedy Townsend.

Watson, a Prince George's County native and head of the Wildlife and Heritage Division, was close to both Glendening and Townsend. She also ran afoul of sportsmen, who said she pushed an anti-hunting agenda.

The other two dismissals shook the department. "I've had a bull's-eye on me for a long time, I understand that," said Watson. "But Verna goes back to the [Harry] Hughes administration and Sumita brought the budget in the black for the last two years."

Fox, who leaves office tomorrow for a job at the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, called the dismissals shortsighted.

"Every governor has the authority to do this, and I always expected that the new governor would come in and make his own assessment," Fox said. "That's fair game. But when the decision comes this quickly, the people of Maryland are the losers. These folks are an incredible institutional resource."

Fox said the remaining 142 DNR employees who serve at the pleasure of the governor are "obviously pretty nervous."

But Fox said he did not get a pink slip yesterday. "They obviously took me at my word that I was leaving," he said.

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