Frosh accused of withholding information on Web rumors

Counsel says senator knows who baited ex-aide

July 24, 2005|By David Nitkin | David Nitkin,SUN STAFF

The top legal counsel to Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. has accused a prominent Democratic state senator who will soon participate in a legislative probe of the Ehrlich administration's firing practices of "apparently withholding information" for partisan political purposes that could provide ammunition to the governor's supporters.

Jervis S. Finney, Ehrlich's counsel, wrote to state Sen. Brian E. Frosh of Montgomery County last week, charging Frosh with engaging in "a concerted, yet totally unsubstantiated, attack on the personnel policy and integrity of the Ehrlich administration" and failing to disclose the identity of a participant on an online message board.

Frosh, who has been one of the harshest critics of the Ehrlich administration since the activities of former Ehrlich aide Joseph F. Steffen Jr. have come to light, denied the charges in an interview yesterday.

Steffen, called the "Prince of Darkness" by the governor and others, was fired after he acknowledged posting Internet rumors about Baltimore Mayor Martin O'Malley, who is expected to seek the Democratic nomination for governor.

Steffen and several other aides from Ehrlich's congressional office had been assigned to a variety of state agencies, and documents and interviews show that they were seeking information on workers who appeared disloyal to the administration and who could be fired. A judge has ruled that employees at the state Public Service Commission were terminated improperly. Baltimore County Councilman Vincent J. Gardina, a Democrat, received a $100,000 payment from the government after he filed a lawsuit claiming he was illegally fired from Maryland Environmental Service because of his party affiliation.

Frosh said he and his legislative colleagues are compelled to investigate those firings and others. But the Ehrlich administration is pushing back. Finney wants the investigation to focus on MD4BUSH, a participant in online conversations on an Internet message board with Steffen and who got the aide to write that he knew there had been an orchestrated effort to give the O'Malley rumors "float."

"Because it does not serve your political interest, you are apparently withholding information that would shed light on this entire matter, the false username MD4BUSH and the truth generally," Finney wrote to Frosh. "In fact based on information apparently provided by an elected official from Baltimore, you well know the identity of the `Watergate style' dirty trickster who operated under the evasive pseudonym MD4BUSH."

Frosh denied yesterday that he knows who MD4BUSH is, and says the identity of the message-board poster doesn't matter much. He said the Ehrlich administration is "trying to change the topic, and it wants the investigation to go away."

Speaking about Finney's letter on WBAL radio yesterday, Ehrlich said that he thinks Democrats know the identity of MD4BUSH. "We have a strong suspicion that is indeed the case," he said.

Ehrlich said that "no protected employee in state government has lost their job," and he said Democrats cannot back up the charges they have made about the staffing changes. "They have questioned my integrity. ... They are stuck, believe me, and we are going to take them down on this."

A 12-member panel of senators and delegates will begin reviewing the administration's personnel practices in the fall.

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