Steffen role is focus of hearing

He was assigned to state agency by top Ehrlich aide, Cabinet official says


Joseph F. Steffen Jr., discounted by the Ehrlich administration as a rogue employee who operated on his own to target workers for firing, was assigned to a large state agency by the governor's chief of staff and reported to him directly, state Human Resources Secretary Christopher J. McCabe testified yesterday.

Steffen's work at the department prompted McCabe to raise concerns with the governor's legal counsel, Jervis S. Finney, and his chief of staff, Steven L. Kreseski, McCabe told a legislative committee investigating Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr.'s hiring practices.

Agency staffing changes were made with dignity and respect, McCabe said, and were necessary to create a well-run operation. But Steffen, who kept figures of Darth Vader and the Grim Reaper on his desk, "had a dark sense of humor that I learned made me uncomfortable and others uncomfortable," McCabe testified.

McCabe, the first administration official to testify, spoke during a marathon meeting of a bipartisan panel examining whether Ehrlich's team fired employees for political reasons to replace them with workers who would promote their agenda.

Republicans have criticized the effort for its partisanship, noting that a new governor is entitled to fill some state jobs with new people. Democrats maintain that the review could lead to personnel policy reforms and a better understanding of how the Ehrlich administration does business.

Also yesterday, state transportation Secretary Robert L. Flanagan took responsibility for his department's firings, saying they were necessary to shape things up.

But three former state workers, two of whom had been fired from their jobs and one who said she was ordered to fire a co-worker, told the committee tales of state workplaces marked by intimidation and uncertainty.

At the end of more than nine hours of testimony, the committee voted along party lines to extend its inquiry about three weeks, meaning that hearings will take place during the General Assembly session which begins next month, adding a fresh political charge to the proceedings. Ward B. Coe III, the attorney for the panel, said he would summon about 20 more witnesses.

McCabe's testimony made clear that Steffen, a GOP operative who looked to replace longtime state workers with Ehrlich loyalists, had a direct line to Kreseski and did not report to the secretary during four months at the department.

McCabe said he had complained to the governor's chief of staff - now a Washington lobbyist - that Steffen was "undermining his ability to function" and expressed concern for the security of his own job.

"I was skeptical about anyone coming to the agency and, in a sense, looking over our shoulder," McCabe said, also noting that he "understood the right of the governor's office to ask that he be there."

Kreseski said last night that Steffen was assigned to the agency because significant changes were needed. The aide was supposed to report through the secretary and to a deputy chief of staff, not directly to the chief of staff, Kreseski said.

"The secretary had concerns that those report lines were being circumvented," Kreseski said.

Paul E. Schurick, a spokesman for the governor, had previously called Steffen "irrelevant to our world." But Steffen said yesterday that he reported to Kreseski and to officials in the governor's appointments office and a deputy chief of staff. "For the record, I was not a rogue operator," he said. "They knew what I was doing."

Henry Fawell, a spokesman for the governor, would not comment on Steffen's role but said McCabe "said today and has said in the past that he approved personnel decisions in that department."

McCabe also said he received a list of screened job candidates from the governor's appointments office which included the applicants' political affiliations.

Republicans on the committee said that wasn't proof that the governor was terminating workers based on political leanings.

"Are you aware of any Democrat in [the Department of Human Resources] who was fired because they were a Democrat?" asked Sen. J. Lowell Stoltzfus, the Republican leader from the Eastern Shore.

"Not by me," McCabe answered.

The legislative panel also heard workers describe what they said were intimidating conditions inside the Department of Transportation and the Office of People's Counsel.

George "Skip" Casey, a former transportation human resources director, testified about a culture of fear in the department as workers, especially at the Maryland Transit Administration, were fired. He said an armed guard was stationed in the room when employees were notified that they were terminated. The identification photographs of some workers were enlarged and posted publicly so that they couldn't return to work without being recognized.

Casey, 53, said the governor's appointments office and the Department of Budget and Management approved all hirings and firings. Some workers were targeted because of their Democratic political affiliation, he said.

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