Questions about Bissett's job linger

Governor's office mum on liaison's precise role

tensions at DNR rumored

Anne Arundel

April 06, 2003|By Ryan Davis | Ryan Davis,SUN STAFF

After Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. was elected governor, he quietly turned to Phillip D. Bissett, a former Republican colleague from the state legislature, to push his environmental agenda.

While the hiring of Bissett to a $77,710-a-year post in the Department of Natural Resources was low-key, the quick-draw Anne Arundel politician soon established that he wouldn't be.

According to current and former state officials, Bissett tried to fire at least one DNR employee without consulting DNR Secretary C. Ronald Franks; lobbied against an agency-backed bill; and openly derided the agency and Franks' leadership.

Franks subsequently told Bissett that he was fired, according to two former DNR officials, but Bissett managed to hang onto his job.

And now the administration is trying to make his employment low-key again. They won't say what he does, where he's working, or comment on his employment. As of Friday he was still listed as a DNR employee, state personnel director Andrea Fulton said, but agency officials have said he is not working from an office there.

"It sounds like there's a little tension over at the department," said Susan Brown, executive director of the Maryland League of Conservation Voters.

Attempts to reach Franks for this article were referred by DNR spokesmen to the governor's press office. Bissett, 46, declined to comment for this article.

As for what Bissett's role will be over the remainder of the administration's term, Ehrlich spokesman Henry Fawell said, "I can't comment on that - at least not now."

For Bissett, who served in the House of Delegates from 1991 to 1999 and who narrowly lost a bid to unseat Anne Arundel County Executive Janet S. Owens last fall, being talked about is nothing new.

In 1998, he responded to criticism of then-County Executive John Gary from County Councilwoman Diane R. Evans by saying, "It's easier to bitch than to lead." Some said it was a sexist remark.

And during last year's Anne Arundel County executive race, he gained attention both for having a concealed-weapon permit and for allegations that he tried to coerce his opponent in the GOP primary into dropping out of the race in exchange for help getting a job with the new administration.

Job uncertainty

But it was Bissett who wound up landing a new state post - as a legislative liaison - which he started Feb. 17. By the morning of March 24, however, his status was in question. A DNR spokesman said that Bissett had been dismissed, though he did not give a reason. But that afternoon, the spokesman retracted the statement.

That night, Bissett said he was going to find out who started the rumor. He said people were jealous of his and the governor's success. He said he was keeping the same job.

But the uncertainty resurfaced Monday. Officials said Bissett had left his office inside DNR.

Bissett had said that his job was to push Ehrlich's agenda in the General Assembly, and at the federal and local levels.

Under the first Republican administration in 34 years, DNR is an agency in upheaval. Several longtime employees were fired as Ehrlich took office, and more change is expected. A case in point: Evans, the target of Bissett's 1998 statement, said she was fired Wednesday.

Those who know Bissett and Franks pointed to three disagreements that led to the secretary's attempt to fire Bissett:

According to two state officials who asked not to be identified, Bissett attempted to have at least one forestry official fired without consulting Franks.

Sen. Paula C. Hollinger, a Democrat from Baltimore County and the chairwoman of the Education, Health and Environmental Affairs Committee, said that without Franks' knowledge, Bissett lobbied against a bill that would have established additional requirements for utilities to obtain permits required to remove or trim roadside trees. After the DNR-backed bill was passed by the committee, Bissett requested it be returned, Hollinger said. It was.

"I'm assuming there's a problem," Hollinger said of Bissett's and Franks' relationship.

The bill was eventually voted back out of committee but was defeated by the full Senate.

Another lawmaker who asked not to be identified said he listened to Bissett openly deride the department and Franks' leadership.

Suited for the job

Bissett, whose previous job was as a lobbyist for a company that makes drunken driving prevention devices, entered state government when he was appointed in 1991 to a vacant seat in the House of Delegates. He quickly gained a reputation as a rising star, and was elected chairman of the Anne Arundel legislative delegation during his first full term as delegate.

He and Ehrlich - whom Bissett refers to as "Bobby" - served together on the House Judiciary Committee.

After his failed bid for county executive, Bissett's name surfaced as a possible DNR secretary, although his voting record made him unpopular with environmentalists, Brown said.

House Speaker Michael E. Busch, an Anne Arundel Democrat, said he recommended Bissett for an administration post. He said he respects Bissett for his intense loyalty to the Republican party.

Del. James E. Rzepkowski, an Anne Arundel Republican, said Bissett is well-suited to "push bureaucracy the way the administration wants it to go."

"I would imagine," Rzepkowski said, "Phil is going to be in a role where he rubs some people the wrong way, but on the flip side he is pushing the agenda of the administration."

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