Probe of Md. hiring urged

Fired official alleges state practices violated

`Shadow government' at work

Ehrlich administration offers sharp rebuke

February 13, 2005|By David Nitkin | David Nitkin,SUN STAFF

The fired personnel chief for the state transportation department urged Maryland lawmakers yesterday to investigate the Ehrlich administration's hiring practices, saying political staffers have established a parallel hiring system that dispenses jobs and salary increases to favored appointees while wrecking morale of career employees.

"There is, in fact, a `shadow government' operating outside of the state personnel system which is operating to terminate career professionals, and fill those positions with their own candidates," said George W. Casey in a detailed six-page letter to Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller and House Speaker Michael E. Busch.

He wrote that such practices "have violated state personnel practices and have been extremely harmful to the integrity of the state workforce."

The letter drew a sharp rebuke from Transportation Secretary Robert L. Flanagan, who said all personnel changes in his department have been made according to state regulations and law.

"Since when can you get away with characterizing the governor and his staff as a `shadow government'?" he said. "They're the people who the citizens elected."

Casey's letter was faxed to the legislative leaders a day after the Ehrlich administration launched a vigorous defense of its personnel system, and comes as lawmakers are considering a formal investigation into hiring and firing overseen by aides to Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr.

One of those aides, Joseph F. Steffen Jr., a former longtime Ehrlich congressional staffer, was fired last week for spreading rumors on an Internet message board about the family life of Baltimore Mayor Martin O'Malley. Current and former workers say Steffen created lists of employees to be fired in several state agencies.

"It would be irresponsible for us not to do an investigation at this point," Sen. Brian E. Frosh, a Montgomery County Democrat and chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, said of the letter. "This is one smoking gun of what is going to turn out to be a smoking arsenal."

Casey's assertions offer a sharp contrast with statements a day earlier from Lawrence J. Hogan Jr., Ehrlich's appointments secretary, who said the administration was following the law in its personnel decisions.

Hogan said Friday that the administration has replaced fewer than 300 high-ranking employees. He said Democrats were grumbling because the patronage system they created over four decades was snatched from them with the 2002 election of Ehrlich, a Republican.

With the program

In an appearance on WBAL radio yesterday, Ehrlich said: "We don't hire on the basis of party identification. We hire on the basis of, `Are you with our program?' If you're not with our program, you're not going to get hired, and, in fact, you may lose your job."

But Frosh said no other administration has delved so deeply into nonpolicy-making jobs in state agencies. Casey's letter, Frosh said, brings clarity to anecdotal evidence he has heard from fired workers at the state natural resources, environment, human resources and juvenile justice agencies, among other departments.

"There are too many of them for it to be anything other than an organized effort," Frosh said.

Casey -- who in his letter said he has doctorates in applied anthropology and business administration and more than 20 years of human resources experience, including as a high-ranking manager with Safeway supermarkets -- faxed signed copies of his letter to Busch and Miller.

During a brief interview at the front door of his Crofton home last night, Casey confirmed that he wrote the letter and said he was hired as the director of human resources for the transportation department Sept. 5, 2001. He declined to answer other questions.

"I don't mean to be rude," he said, "but I'm not going to say anymore. The letter speaks for itself."

In his letter, he wrote that many Ehrlich appointees are committed professionals. But their authority was undermined by another group, he said.

"There were, in reality, two administrations operating within the state government. One group came to govern, the other to fire anyone who resisted any of their improper actions," he wrote. "The resulting vacancies were used for political purposes. It was this second group that appeared, in many cases, to be actually running the [transportation] department, not the secretary and the administrators."

Casey said officials in the transportation department are bypassing its internal Transportation Service Human Resources System in making hires and are replacing workers through a noncompetitive process at much lower pay grades than before. He details what he said were violations of standard personnel practices, such as a new employee signing documents for his own pay raise.

He said in the letter that he was fired last year after raising questions about pay raises for certain appointees. The firing, he said, came days after he received a rating of "far exceeds expectations" on his annual review.

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