`Prince of Darkness' is back

Md. GOP operative says he didn't vanish, he was just working in politics elsewhere

July 12, 2006|By JUSTIN FENTON | JUSTIN FENTON,SUN REPORTER

He was supposed to be the star witness before a committee of lawmakers examining the firing practices of the Ehrlich administration, the so-called Prince of Darkness accused of clearing out state agencies to make room for GOP loyalists.

Then Joseph F. Steffen Jr. disappeared. His cell phone went dead. A subpoena drafted earlier this year was never delivered, and the select committee that wanted to hear from him put its work on hold.

Steffen has returned to the Baltimore area and is ready to talk - to lawmakers and the news media. He never intentionally vanished, he said, but had simply taken political and business jobs out of town.

He has even resumed his life as a campaign operative in Maryland, working as a consultant to a Republican candidate for Harford County Council president, 37-year-old technology firm owner Aaron Kazi.

Kazi "is the reason I'm back in Maryland politics," Steffen told The Sun during an interview this week. "This is the type of guy - if you can't get into his philosophy and energy, you just can't get into it."

Steffen, 47, worked for Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. for more than two decades, in campaigns and in Ehrlich's congressional office. Ehrlich gave him the name "Prince of Darkness," he said, a reference to his wardrobe and penchant for keeping the lights off in his office.

The nickname also described the tasks he undertook, critics say.

Ehrlich's former political opponents suspect Steffen was the architect of dirty campaign tactics. Steffen has acknowledged he has done many things he is not proud of in political campaigns, but he has refused to talk about specifics.

Last year, Steffen was pulled from the shadows and into the spotlight after he acknowledged spreading Internet rumors about the personal life of Baltimore Mayor Martin O'Malley, a Democrat running for governor.

Ehrlich fired Steffen, and the revelations of his activities led to a legislative investigation of the actions of Steffen and other Ehrlich supporters in firing relatively low-level workers in state agencies.

Steffen appears to be anything but a pariah in Harford, where nearly every state and local office is held by a Republican. During a meal in a popular restaurant in Bel Air, the county executive and his chief of staff immediately approached the table and greeted him with warm handshakes.

But not everyone is thrilled with Steffen's re-emergence.

"I would hope that the good people of Harford County know what Joe Steffen has been all about and would not view his entry into our local politics as a welcome thing," said Michael G. Comeau, chairman of the county's Democratic central committee. "Even the governor knew it was time to jettison this guy, because he was bad news both ethically and politically. But in desperation to win elections, people sometimes do desperate things."

Between drafting palm cards and mailers for Kazi - whose company donated campaign Web site services to Ehrlich in 2002 - Steffen could be called back to Annapolis to testify to a bipartisan panel investigating Ehrlich's hiring and firing practices. The committee recently extended its work until Sept. 1 and was preparing a draft report of its findings when a reporter informed some members that Steffen had returned.

"You're kidding," said Sen. Brian E. Frosh, a Montgomery County Democrat on the committee.

"Oh, is he now?" said Del. Adrienne A. Jones from Baltimore County, another committee Democrat who was at a conference in Minneapolis yesterday.

A legislative hearing featuring Steffen is sure to be a high point in what is already a heated gubernatorial campaign between Ehrlich and O'Malley.

Democrats say the Ehrlich administration has stymied the personnel inquiry, and lawmakers are suing to compel more detailed testimony from agency officials who would not answer some questions. Republicans say the inquiry amounts to a political witch-hunt designed to embarrass the governor.

"The focus should be on the millions of dollars spent to complete a taxpayer-financed campaign to hurt the governor," said Greg Massoni, a spokesman for the governor, who says charges of political firings are unfounded.

"They've produced nothing, not a single person. There's no credibility in anything they have to say. If they want Joe to testify, Joe would be more than available."

In interviews with the news media and committee's legal counsel, Steffen has said he would cooperate with the investigation. Ward B. Coe III, the special counsel assigned to conduct the probe, said he personally called Steffen numerous times earlier this year and left voice-mail messages. Investigators asked friends and neighbors of his whereabouts - a subpoena was written up but they were unable to serve him.

"It seemed like he just dropped off the face of the Earth," Coe said.

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