Lawmakers consider probe of firings by administration

Action could be faster than individual lawsuits

February 21, 2005|By David Nitkin | David Nitkin,SUN STAFF

Maryland lawmakers are considering granting themselves potent tools to probe the Ehrlich administration's personnel practices - far stronger than those available to several fired state workers trying to accomplish the same goal through individual lawsuits.

Armed with subpoenas and the klieg lights of public scrutiny, lawmakers - if they take up the issue - could unearth documents, witnesses and trends to determine whether aides to Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. are improperly removing low-level agency workers, some state officials say.

A handful of employees seeking the same information have sued the administration since the governor took office in 2003 but have faced obstacles, ex-workers and their lawyers say.

Assistant Attorney General Robert A. Zarnoch, who advises the General Assembly, acknowledged that an inquiry would produce more complete and faster results than would lawsuits.

Ehrlich and his department heads probably would produce documents quickly, he said, or risk appearing as if they had something to hide.

"It certainly is more efficient," Zarnoch said. "If you start holding hearings, people are going to come out of the woodwork."

Several ex-workers have had trouble finding out why they were fired. Administration officials have refused to provide documents to Robin D. Grove, a former deputy director with Maryland Department of the Environment who sued the governor in September 2003, saying he was illegally sacked on Inauguration Day solely because he is a Democrat.

A judge has agreed that the administration is dragging its feet. Last November, Baltimore Circuit Judge Kaye A. Allison imposed financial sanctions on the state after it claimed that hundreds of documents are protected by executive privilege but never went through the files to explain why.

"Defendants have had ample time, nearly one year, to review these documents yet they have failed to do so," Allison said in her decision imposing the sanctions, including attorney expenses. The state has appealed Allison's decision, meaning a further delay of months.

Also this month, the state paid $100,000 to settle a case from Baltimore County Councilman Vincent J. Gardina, who earned less than $60,000 as a project manager for Maryland Environmental Service. He said he was fired from the contract position he held for five months after Republicans learned he was on the payroll.

State officials offered the settlement on the eve of depositions of managers who were to be asked who ordered the firing. The depositions were never held, and Gardina said he was frustrated he never learned who gave the order.

Lawrence J. Hogan Jr., the governor's appointments secretary, has said that all hirings and firings have been handled according to law.

"With all the talk of witch hunts and partisan hearings, you'd never know it, but the undeniable and indisputable truth is that no other governor in Maryland history has been so nonpartisan," Hogan told the state Senate on Friday.

But Daniel M. Clements, an attorney representing both Grove and Gardina, disagrees.

"They are hiding and refusing to turn over any documents that show what is the basis of their action," Clements said, speaking of Grove's case. "The government should be transparent about their actions - not firing people for political reasons, then hiding it."

Lawmakers are considering a full inquiry into hiring and firing by Ehrlich in the aftermath of revelations about Joseph F. Steffen Jr., an aide to the governor. The governor has said he would welcome an investigation.

Steffen was forced to resign Feb. 8 after acknowledging he spread Internet rumors about Baltimore Mayor Martin O'Malley's personal life. Immediately, current and former state workers came forward to say that Steffen had been dispatched to state agencies to compile lists of low-level workers to be fired.

Democrats allege that Steffen and other Ehrlich staffers are firing far more workers who considered themselves in non-political positions than did previous administrations. Ehrlich officials deny the allegations.

Robert M. Higginbotham II, a fired Public Service Commission employee who is suing to get his job back, encouraged a legislative inquiry. In his lawsuit, he said the state "has failed to negotiate in any way or form."

"It's definitely a speedier process and an ultimate solution," Higginbotham said, "as well as weighing in on just what is the authority of this executive to these lower-level employees, who are just trying to feed their families, pay their bills and contribute as citizens."

While House Speaker Michael E. Busch and other top lawmakers support an inquiry, Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller has resisted.

"In my opinion, it's immoral, it's unethical, but it is not illegal," Miller said of the administration's personnel decisions. "I'm not about to set up a commission to investigate something that is not illegal."

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