Political firings denied

4 Ehrlich administration officials testify at 8-hour legislative hearing

May 12, 2006|By JENNIFER SKALKA | JENNIFER SKALKA,SUN REPORTER

During a tense, eight-hour legislative hearing yesterday, four Ehrlich administration officials denied that state workers were fired for political reasons, saying employees who had not performed adequately were replaced with more capable people.

But the officials, including Public Service Commission Chairman Kenneth D. Schisler, also declined to answer many questions asked by lawmakers on the special committee investigating Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr.'s hiring and firing practices. That prompted some committee members to threaten court action to force further testimony.

Schisler, who is at the center of a political storm over the prospect of steep electricity rate increases, acknowledged receiving a list of potential hires from the governor's appointments office, but said he made the ultimate decision to fire five top staffers April 15, 2004.

"I didn't get direction from [Ehrlich appointments secretary] Larry Hogan or anyone from the governor's office to hire or fire employees," Schisler said of his action, which led critics to charge that he was "lobotomizing" the agency by ousting experienced staff.

When asked to give concrete reasons for the firings, Schisler noted a variety of reasons.

Randy M. Allen, the commission's chief auditor, was fired in part because he liked to keep the most interesting work for himself, Schisler said. Blaine L. Keener, former chief engineer for the PSC, liked to wear ripped jeans to work, had an "anti-authority demeanor" and when he was told to put on a tie, would rummage through the laundry he kept in his office to find a "dorky '70s-era tie." And Chrys O. Wilson, former manager of external relations, required too much editing on her writing.

The committee, made up of senators and delegates and dominated by Democrats, has spent nine months investigating whether state workers were fired because they were Democrats or to make way to people who would be more loyal to Ehrlich, the first Republican governor in three decades.

Also appearing before the committee was Schisler's director of administration and operations Craig B. Chesek, who denied referring to himself as "al-Qaida."

Chesek, a veteran of Ehrlich's congressional office, said he was not aware of the party affiliations of the fired workers. He said his e-mails to Diane Baker, the administration's deputy appointments secretary, asking for the go-ahead to fire an employee, did not mean the terminations were ordered by the governor's office.

Gregory J. Maddalone, an ice dancer and longtime Ehrlich aide who is an emergency response manger at the Department of Transportation, said he helped facilitate five firings at the Maryland Transit Authority. He said his agency was provided a list of resumes of people to consider for hiring. "At no time were we required to hire those individuals," he said.

Maddalone, a high school graduate who has been criticized for lacking qualifications, said he is tired of being lampooned. "Am I an ice skater? Yes, I'm very proud of that fact," he said.

Chesek and Maddalone shared an attorney, Donald Braden, who declined to answer the committee's questions about who was paying his legal fees.

David Marks, chief of staff at the Department of Transportation, testified that his office was provided a list of "at-will" employees - state workers who can be fired without cause.

Schisler spent four hours testifying yesterday, raising his voice repeatedly to lawmakers, drinking nearly two pitchers of water and grimacing throughout.

When Sen. Brian E. Frosh, a Montgomery County Democrat, asked Schisler if he had discussed personnel matters during a meeting with Hogan and Carville Collins, a lobbyist and lawyer for the utility industry, Schisler became incensed. He said he had no recollection of the meeting and that Frosh's suggestion that personnel decisions were discussed during that meeting was off-base.

"This is `Elvis is alive' conspiracy theory at work, alien abduction, government cover-ups, you have absolutely nothing to support the things you're saying," Schisler said.

E-mails released by the PSC in recent weeks show that Schisler and Collins exchanged opinions about other personnel decisions, including the appointment of a PSC commissioner.

Schisler declined to answer a number of questions "on the advice of counsel," including one about when he had legal research done about his authority to terminate employees. "Objection," he said. "Attorney-client privilege."

One mystery at the hearings was the whereabouts of a former Ehrlich aide, Joseph F. Steffen Jr., who said the governor had dubbed him the "Prince of Darkness."

Chesek said he spoke with Steffen, who has said he was dispatched to state agencies to fire workers, a little more than a week ago and that he is "employed in various states" doing work of a "political nature."

Committee counsel Ward B, Coe said he has had trouble getting Steffen to return his phone calls. Initially, Steffen had indicated to Coe that he would cooperate with the special committee.

Del. Adrienne A. Jones, a Democrat and the committee's co-chair, had one request of Chesek. "Would you call Mr. Steffen and ask him to call Mr. Coe?" she said.

jennifer.skalka@baltsun.com

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