GOP legislators threaten to miss hearings on personnel policies

Committee is to begin probe of Ehrlich hiring, firing actions

August 18, 2005|By Jennifer Skalka | Jennifer Skalka,SUN STAFF

Republican lawmakers say they won't participate in hearings on Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr.'s personnel practices if the inquiry becomes overly partisan, and they are threatening to walk out of the proceedings if majority Democrats don't play fair.

"If it's extremely egregious and partisan, and Republicans aren't given the opportunity to participate in it, then we won't be there," Sen. J. Lowell Stoltzfus, the minority leader from Somerset County, said yesterday.

The warning comes as a 12-member committee is scheduled to launch its investigation Monday into Ehrlich's hiring and firing decisions. The effort -- the first major legislative probe into state government in 30 years --- has drawn ire from the governor and Lt. Gov. Michael S. Steele, who recently called it a "show trial, something designed to embarrass the governor."

But as the committee's start date fast approaches, its Republican members are expressing ever louder skepticism about the merits of the investigation. They are calling on their Democratic counterparts to provide them with independent power to subpoena witnesses, a move that a General Assembly lawyer says is unlikely given state legal precedent. Several of the panel's GOP members say they may abandon the committee if they believe Democrats are grandstanding.

"The minority party ought to have the same rights as the majority party," said Del. George C. Edwards, the House minority leader from Western Maryland and one of four Republicans on the committee. "If they get to subpoena, we should get to subpoena. Anything they get to do, we should get to do, too."

The prospect of a Republican walkout -- especially one that might turn on the subpoena issue -- is perplexing some Democrats. Del. Adrienne A. Jones, a Baltimore County Democrat who co-chairs the committee, said the group will deal with facts, and "facts are not partisan."

"I think they're getting all worked up for nothing," Jones said.

Monday, committee Democrats will present general guidelines for the investigation, which could include a request for subpoena power, a timeline and structure for the hearings and a determination of whether additional staff should be hired or outside counsel is needed. The guidelines will be debated by the members, and questions will be answered by staff from the state attorney general's office.

A vote on the committee guidelines is expected to come at a second meeting Aug. 25.

The investigation stems from charges that Ehrlich's administration forced many longtime state employees out of their jobs based on political affiliations or perceived disloyalty to the governor. The allegations surfaced this year, after longtime gubernatorial aide Joseph F. Steffen Jr. was accused of being part of a cadre of Ehrlich supporters who compiled lists of workers to be fired in several agencies. The administration denies the charges, and says it has replaced fewer workers than its predecessors.

Shareese N. DeLeaver, Ehrlich's spokeswoman, said yesterday that the governor is willing to take part in a "fair and objective inquiry," but has no "desire to participate in a partisan witch hunt." She also moved to distance Ehrlich from any talk of a Republican walkout. "The actions of the legislators are just that, the actions of the legislators," she said.

If the committee's four Republicans do walk out, GOP leaders could contend that the remaining eight Democrats cannot fairly assess the Republican governor's practices.

Robert A. Zarnoch, an assistant attorney general who is advising the General Assembly in the investigation, said the chief goal of the committee is to determine if state laws should afford broader job protections to state employees.

Zarnoch, who couldn't say how the committee will be structured, said the question of minority subpoena rights has been addressed in state law. "The case law frowns on the notion of individual legislators being able to issue subpoenas," he said.

Sen. Brian E. Frosh, a Montgomery County Democrat and member of the special committee, said it is imperative for the panel to have subpoena power. Without it, he said, members might not be able to review personnel records that would otherwise be confidential.

But during interviews yesterday, Republicans demanded subpoena power as a requirement for their cooperation and shrugged off suggestions that it would be out of the ordinary for them to have it. "There's a first time for everything," said Del. Anthony J. O'Donnell, a Charles County Republican and House minority whip.

Even at the federal level, minority subpoena rights are not guaranteed. Charles Tiefer, a professor of legislation at the University of Baltimore Law School and the author of a book about congressional procedure, said subpoena power rests with the majority in the U.S. House and Senate. In the Senate, however, the leadership can provide use of subpoena power to assist a minority investigation.

In Maryland, the last similar legislative inquiry came in 1975, when lawmakers examined surveillance tactics of the Baltimore Police Department -- then a part of the executive branch. But the police commissioner didn't face a heated election, as does Ehrlich in 2006. And Republicans -- on the special committee and off -- will contend that the latest investigation is an effort to tar the governor just before he launches his re-election campaign.

"They're still throwing a temper tantrum because they lost the governor's mansion," O'Donnell said.

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