Let the curtain fall

July 13, 2006

The reappearance of the suspected hitman in Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr.'s questionable firing practices has injected new life into efforts by a panel of lawmakers trying to determine if the firings of several hundred state workers were on the up and up. During several hearings in Annapolis before the Special Committee on Employee Rights and Protections last spring, unhappy former employees claimed they lost their jobs unfairly because they were Democrats. Ehrlich appointees defended the action, saying the governor was justified in exercising some of the spoils of his election victory when he filled the jobs with Republicans.

The star witness in this drama was supposed to have been Joseph F. Steffen Jr., one of Mr. Ehrlich's longtime political compadres, who seemed to have relished the prospect of appearing before the committee to chat about his role in displacing staffers. But before he could stroll onto center stage in the hearing room, he vanished. He snubbed the lawmakers and fled both the state and the reach of their subpoena. But now he's back in the picture, bootstrapping as a political consultant in Harford County and, once again, saying he's willing to meet with the special committee.

Mr. Steffen's testimony may be crucial to wrapping up the committee's work, and moving quickly on this is to everyone's advantage. Otherwise, we might suggest that the committee snub Mr. Steffen. The season of legislating is over and the season of campaigning is under way. The committee's critics say the investigation is nothing but an election-year smear against Mr. Ehrlich. Dragging this on much longer would add fuel to that fire.

There is still the matter of a lawsuit filed against two state employees who refused to answer the committee's questions. That is in a judge's hands, and the committee is waiting to learn whether the pair will be compelled to testify. Unfortunately, the official deadline for the committee to finish its business is tied up in that ruling, although the end could come as early as September.

In the meantime, the committee co-chairs should schedule a hearing, have their lawyer put the subpoena in Mr. Steffen's paws, do what's needed to help protect workers and drop the curtain on this show. After all, the inquiry is supposed to benefit state employees, not candidates for state office.

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