Is Steffen ready to come clean on his dirt?

November 01, 2005|By MICHAEL OLESKER

Joseph F. Steffen Jr., dubbed the "Prince of Darkness" by his former boss, Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., has emerged from the shadows eight months after he was banished from the political light of day. He says he wants to bare his soul. He says he just remembered he has one.

For those of you who have forgotten him, Steffen's the guy who gloried in his role as Ehrlich's unofficial hit man. Democratic opponents blame him for smear tactics dating across years of Ehrlich political campaigns. Steffen now admits they're right, though he doesn't want to get specific. Not yet, anyway.

When Ehrlich became governor, Steffen says he was dispatched to various state agencies, looking for people to fire. He's also the guy who helped spread those indecent rumors about Mayor Martin O'Malley's marriage and was then fired when his identity became public and he was suddenly perceived as politically inconvenient.

"I'm not going to get into specifics, but I did a lot of things I'm not proud of to this day," Steffen told The Sun's David Nitkin. "I would apologize to a lot of people. To a great degree, I got what I had coming."

Steffen's story ran on the front page of yesterday's Sun. Eight months after he was dismissed over the O'Malley rumors, Steffen contacted Nitkin to revisit some old, unhealthy business and to talk about the administration he once served with great enthusiasm and malignance.

Then, yesterday afternoon, he called my number.

"You're the first person who ever called me a scumbag that I ever called back," Steffen said, recalling an old newspaper column.

"So I'm not the only one who's called you that?" In fact, the term was Official State Dirtball.

"Why did you decide to come forward now?" I asked.

"For my own good," Steffen said. "For my own soul. When you're in exile, you have a lot of time for soul-searching. And I suddenly remembered I had one. You spend years turning opponents into targets, and then you remember they're human beings made of flesh and blood."

Steffen dates his ties to Ehrlich back to 1986, "but official ties only since 1994." Over those years, political opponents repeatedly complained of dirty tactics in Ehrlich campaigns. These included not only Democrats like Gerry L. Brewster, Connie Galiazzo DeJuliis and Kathleen Kennedy Townsend, but also Republican primary opponent Thomas W. Chaimberlain.

"They were talking about me," Steffen said.

"What kind of stuff did you do?"

"I don't want to get into that now," he said.

"Did Ehrlich know what you were doing?"

There was a long pause on the telephone.

"I'm having my Watergate moment," Steffen said.

"Did he know?"

"I can't remember any time he asked me about it," he said.

"All those campaigns, where there were newspaper stories about dirty tactics, and he never asked you?"

"I really can't remember him asking," Steffen said.

Now a special legislative committee has begun a review of the Ehrlich administration's hiring and firing policies.

The state has already been sued at least six times since Ehrlich took office by workers who said they lost their jobs because of their political affiliations. That is against the law. One case cost the state $100,000 in an out-of-court settlement.

Democrats say Steffen was part of a team hunting for politically disloyal workers. Steffen says nobody was fired for politics. But he told The Sun's Nitkin: "I was told by people in the [governor's] appointments office to look deeper, look for file clerks, secretaries." He said he was told, "We have people who can do these jobs."

Paul E. Schurick, Ehrlich's communications director, denied this to The Sun. Never mind political hirings and firings. As the Ehrlich people tell it, state workers come and go strictly on the basis of merit.

Of course, these are the people who famously hired Gregory J. Maddalone this year as the Port of Baltimore's legislative liaison. Maddalone's previous experience? Professional ice dancer.

All of this shadows a governor still remembered for last winter's State of the State speech calling for "respect," a six-minute plea in which he told legislators not to bring "Capitol Hill assassin politics" to Annapolis - but went on the radio to attack those who disagree with him and sent talking points to public information officers across state government that exalted Ehrlich and bashed his opponents.

Over the weekend, Nitkin asked Steffen, the 20-year Ehrlich loyalist: Has Ehrlich been a good governor?

"All I know is, it's 2005 and we don't have slots here," Steffen replied. Pushing aside Ehrlich's complaint that a Democratic-controlled General Assembly has blocked his biggest legislative agenda for three years, Steffen pointed to President Ronald Reagan pushing a tax cut through a 1981 Democratic Congress.

"It's leadership," Steffen told Nitkin.

That's all. And, in the absence of it, we've had three years of political gridlock and antagonism. We've had headlines based on name-calling and rumor-mongering, and radio airwaves filled with whining.

And now, eight months after he was banished from public view, we have the governor's old Prince of Darkness emerging from the shadows to speak some uncomfortable truths. Which, things being how they are, his old cronies will now brand as lies.

And those old political tricks?

"I don't want to talk about them," Steffen said.

"But you said you wanted to cleanse your soul," he was reminded.

"Maybe I'll get to that point soon," he said.

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