Hearings on state firings conclude

Lawmakers disagree on legality of moves by Ehrlich aides


The legislative committee investigating Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr.'s personnel practices concluded its hearings yesterday, but after nine months of work and dozens of hours of testimony lawmakers disagree as to whether the governor's staff violated state employment laws or simply acted callously in forcing out hundreds of longtime workers without warning or cause.

Republicans are calling the effort an election-year smear and say that state taxpayers deserve more for their money.

Democrats, however, say they have uncovered a pattern of behavior by Ehrlich appointees that merits further review.

The committee voted last night to ask a judge to compel more expansive testimony from two reluctant witnesses, Gregory J. Maddalone, a Transportation Department manager; and Craig B. Chesek, operations manager at the Public Service Commission. Maddalone and Chesek, former congressional aides to Ehrlich, declined to answer many questions under oath at the advice of their attorney.

"The patronage office of the governor is serving as the personnel office," said House Speaker Michael E. Busch, a Democrat. "I think the integrity of state government has been compromised."

Ward B. Coe, the committee's counsel, said he will prepare a report with recommendations for improving state personnel practices to provide more protection for the 6,000 workers who serve at the governor's pleasure and can be fired at any time without reason. Coe acknowledged yesterday that the committee is ending its hearings without word from the most anticipated and perhaps most potentially informative witness - Joseph F. Steffen Jr., the man whom Ehrlich had dubbed the "Prince of Darkness."

After his tactics came to light when he discussed personal rumors about Mayor Martin O'Malley on the Internet, Steffen acknowledged that he was assigned to several state agencies to root out employees who could be replaced with Ehrlich loyalists. Steffen said previously that he would cooperate with the committee's work, but has not returned Coe's calls or e-mails. The committee urged its lawyer last night to continue efforts to reach Steffen.

Steffen's name has come up during most of the committee's hearings, and yesterday was no different.

Sen. Brian E. Frosh, a Montgomery County Democrat, presented the committee with memos from Steffen describing firings at the Department of Juvenile Services. Writing to four top administration officials, including Ehrlich's legal counsel, Jervis S. Finney, former Ehrlich chief of staff Steve L. Kreseski and Appointments Secretary Lawrence J. Hogan Jr., Steffen says he is willing to handle the terminations if agency secretary Kenneth C. Montague Jr. is not.

On Nov. 13, 2003, Steffen wrote that "the only way Montague will terminate anyone is if he is given no choice in the matter."

"I will work on building cases against a number of individuals who appear to be on everyone's list - save Secretary Montague's," Steffen wrote. "If he does not inform these chosen that they are being let go, we will have to do it for him. It's not standard process or chain of command, but those niceties are not going to work in this situation."

Montague testified yesterday that he had not previously heard of Steffen's involvement in any agency firings.

Andrea M. Fulton, the state's top personnel officer and the woman who handled the firings of many of the witnesses who have testified before the committee, said that the decision to release state workers came from others. She said the governor had delegated to Hogan and the appointments office the authority to fire workers.

In at least one instance, when Public Service Commission Chairman Kenneth D. Schisler wanted to fire five senior workers on one day, Fulton volunteered to do the firings because Schisler did not have a personnel director. Fulton testified that she did not ask Schisler why he wanted to terminate the five workers, saying that some employees can be fired without reason.

Fulton also said she was asked by Hogan and his one-time deputy, Michael Richard, to craft lists of at-will employees in most of the state's departments. The Ehrlich administration has fired more at-will employees - roughly 340 people to date - than other administrations she has worked under during her 34-year state career, she said.

Refuting the testimony of several fired state workers, Fulton said she had never seen a list of state workers who were targeted for firing. Nor had she ever been instructed to hire or fire workers based on their political affiliation, she said. Many fired workers have told the committee they believe they were let go because they were Democrats.

"The appointments office in the previous administration really only dealt with boards and commissions," Fulton added, referring to former Gov. Parris N. Glendening, a Democrat.

Hogan said that his office is entitled to help the governor place people in jobs. "We replaced Glendening appointees with Ehrlich appointees, and we have every right to do that," Hogan said.

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