Ehrlich counsel calls for GOP right to hire lawyer in personnel probe

September 09, 2005|By Jennifer Skalka | Jennifer Skalka,SUN STAFF

Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr.'s legal counsel requested yesterday that Republicans on a special committee reviewing the administration's personnel practices have the right to hire their own attorney.

In a letter to the committee's chairman, Jervis S. Finney also challenged the Legislative Policy Committee's recent decision to delegate subpoena power to the special committee, saying the move ignores state law.

"Governor Ehrlich and his administration expect and the citizens of Maryland deserve a legitimate exercise in bipartisanship and legislative oversight, not this apparently illegitimate undertaking," Finney wrote.

Finney's letter is the latest in a stream of missives he has sent to Sen. Thomas M. Middleton, a Charles County Democrat and a co-chairman of the special committee, and it underscores what could be a continuing struggle between Democrats and Republicans on the panel.

Led by Sen. J. Lowell Stoltzfus, the Senate minority leader and a committee member, Republicans have threatened to walk out of committee hearings if they become overly partisan. Democrats, who outnumber Republicans eight to four on the committee, maintain that they are including them in all decisions and have promised to focus on how Maryland law might better protect state workers, not on Ehrlich's hiring and firing practices.

Stoltzfus said yesterday that the Republicans won't abandon the hearings yet, but that he hopes Finney's suggestions will be adopted by the committee. "I don't know yet what the fallout will be but it's certainly a reasonable request," he said.

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 collection 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.

Robert A. Zarnoch, assistant attorney general and counsel to the General Assembly, said yesterday that he can think of no previous situation in which a committee's minority members were authorized to hire or consult an independent attorney.

"In 25 years, that's never happened before," he said.

The Legislative Policy Committee - led by House Speaker Michael E. Busch and Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller, both Democrats - voted last month to give the special committee the right to subpoena witnesses. Finney questions the legality of that decision. But Zarnoch has said in the past that it's been irrefutable. Middleton has said they would issue subpoenas only when absolutely necessary.

Middleton was frustrated yesterday by Finney's letter but vowed to continue to reach out to committee Republicans. "I've said repeatedly that this committee's going to be able to do this work better if we don't have the outside political interference," he said.

The committee meets again Wednesday in Annapolis.

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