Questions linger over Ehrlich liaison's job

Governor's office mum about Bissett's role

tensions at DNR rumored

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.

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.

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 persuade his opponent in the GOP primary to drop out of the race in exchange for help getting a job with the new administration.

But it was Bissett who wound up landing a new state post - as a legislative liaison. Bissett started work on Feb. 17. By the morning of March 24, 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.

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.

The bill was eventually 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.

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