Hearings set a bitter tone

December 18, 2005|By C. FRASER SMITH

And now from those folks who brought you flying cookies, get ready for weeks of dispiriting charges and aggressive damage control on the subject of patronage in state government.

We're in the holiday season, but don't look for sugar or spice or anything nice.

Hearings on the hiring and firing in state government opened last week with a two-hour lamentation on Draconian Republican house cleaning. Democrats say, with justification, that the Ehrlich administration has given us a gleeful romp through a system Republicans always labeled as fat and lazy. Now we may learn how the GOP in Maryland discovered the virtues of employment pork.

The first witness, Tom Burgess, a human relations chief at the Department of Human Resources, apparently believed that since he was a Republican someone might give him credit for a shocking personnel decision: He wanted to see a Democrat promoted.

According to his testimony, that approach to the people's business got him targeted by the trench-coated pink-slip brigade. The letters "DL" - for death list - were appended reportedly to the names of those in the crosshairs. The tone of the enterprise was in the nicknames, the Grim Reaper figurines and the initials.

Simply not true, said Paul E. Schurick, Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr.'s communications director.

It was Mr. Schurick who said Oreo cookies filled the air like locusts when Lt. Gov. Michael S. Steele entered a debate at Morgan State University three years ago. Mr. Schurick's words were so over the top they almost seemed like a veiled attempt to undermine the whole account. In the air like locusts? Translation: "You do understand, don't you, that I'm paid to say these things?"

Get ready for more of the same. Something intense may be needed if you're the Ehrlich administration. That is so because the hearings are held against a backdrop painted by Joseph F. Steffen Jr., an Ehrlich administration aide who seemed to relish his role as "Prince of Darkness." Mr. Steffen, who confirmed to Sun reporter Jennifer Skalka that Mr. Burgess was indeed a target, may now be a witness for the prosecution.

The whole thing takes us to another hiring issue, this one involving the Ehrlich re-election campaign: the employment of Bo Harmon, architect of the infamous Max Cleland smear in Georgia. Mr. Cleland, a triple amputee veteran of Vietnam, was called unpatriotic, an ally of Osama bin Laden. Mr. Cleland lost to Mr. Harmon's candidate.

The hearings, meanwhile, are likely to be filled with he said, she said, who-struck-John invective.

Which is not to say the hearings have no value.

Sue Esty, a public employee union lobbyist, says jobs of various certain kinds were transmuted into jobs that might be filled by persons of indeterminate qualifications. If her findings are accurate, some sort of corrective measures must be taken by the General Assembly, the Ehrlich administration or both.

One state agency changed specific jobs from "merit" to "at will" (or political) in violation of its own policies. Employees who should have undergone competitive exams got jobs without them and without any assurance that minimum qualifications were met.

Two agencies have hired more than 20 percent of their total work force since January 2003. Because they are all special appointment jobs, a significant percentage of the work force was hired without minimum qualifications or competitive exams.

The Ehrlich administration converted 88 merit positions to higher paid "at will" jobs at a cost of an additional $1.02 million. Under existing law, legislative oversight is not required.

More than 300 merit system employees were terminated when funding for their positions was eliminated without an opportunity to take a different job and without the right of appeal. There are no rules for the selection of individuals and no protections against retaliation or discrimination.

Will it be possible in the end to know who deserved the ashcan and who was dumped to build party loyalty the old fashioned way, with a job? Fortunately, the committee has a well-regarded Baltimore lawyer as its lead counsel, Ward B. Coe III of Whiteford, Taylor & Preston.

He and the committee will try to sort it all out.

C. Fraser Smith is senior news analyst at WYPR-FM. His column appears Sundays. His e-mail is FSmith@wypr.org

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