Joseph F. Steffen Jr. - known in political circles as the "Prince of Darkness" - shed light yesterday on his role in the firing of state employees, asserting that he teamed with the governor's appointments office in targeting workers to be terminated and that their political affiliations informed his recommendations.
Though frank at turns about the bravado that prompted his behavior, Steffen, 47, refused to answer many questions about his recent employment and whereabouts. His obstinance prompted the committee of lawmakers who heard Steffen's sworn testimony to vote unanimously to go to court to compel him to respond to their inquiries.
Several committee members said Steffen's testimony appeared to differ from previous sworn remarks made by Ehrlich appointments secretary Lawrence J. Hogan Jr. Some lawmakers said after the hearing that they are considering asking the Anne Arundel County state's attorney's office to review the discrepancies for possible criminal violations. Steffen said that while he was a state worker, he and Hogan met regularly to discuss personnel decisions. Hogan told the committee in May that he never asked Steffen for recommendations about possible firings. If either lied under oath, he could face misdemeanor perjury charges and up to 10 years in prison.
Democratic General Assembly leaders formed a select committee to investigate the personnel practices of Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. in June 2005 - several months after Steffen's activities in state government came to light - and have since awaited his testimony.
Some Democrats contend Steffen was one of several state workers assigned to various agencies to purge them of Democratic loyalists and make room for the governor's supporters. The lawmakers allege that the administration reached deeper than necessary into state agencies to put its own stamp on state operations and disposed of untold decades of employee experience by forcing out workers solely because they were Democrats.
Republicans counter that as the first Republican governor in decades, Ehrlich came into office with a mandate to reshape state operations. The governor has done little different from past Democratic administrations, they say.
It was the most public appearance by Steffen in at least a year, after he was cast aside by the Ehrlich administration for spreading rumors online about the governor's chief political rival, Baltimore Mayor Martin O'Malley. Steffen had worked for Ehrlich for years, and the governor accepted Steffen's resignation - or fired him, depending on who is recounting the events - in February 2005 after that disclosure.
But fresh questions arose yesterday about just how clean the break was. Steffen acknowledged during questioning that he had dinner with Ehrlich communications director Paul E. Schurick, a top aide to the governor, as recently as January, when the General Assembly session was getting under way. Steffen also said he and Schurick had spoken on the phone twice since he left state government.
"He was just checking up to see how I was," Steffen said.
Sen. Brian E. Frosh, a Montgomery County Democrat, said he believes that the Ehrlich administration did not want Steffen to testify. "I think what Mr. Schurick was saying to Mr. Steffen was `Shut up, we'll take care of you,'" he said.
Schurick told reporters he has not spoken with Steffen since January. "I am 100 percent certain that no one from this office tried to influence him in any way in advance of his appearance today," he said. "Period. It did not happen."
Since Steffen's departure, the administration has played down his influence. Ehrlich officials have called him a rogue operator, and Schurick once said Steffen was "irrelevant to our world."
But Steffen described his efforts yesterday as more crucial to the administration, though he said he did not have the authority on his own to fire state workers. He said that he participated regularly in Ehrlich staff meetings and that during the better part of his state service, he met with Hogan and Deputy Appointments Secretary Diane Baker one to three times a month.
Steffen said appointments office officials also provided him with lists of at-will employees - those who can be fired without cause - and advised: "If these people are at will and you don't think they're doing a good job, let us know."
Hogan gave a different account when he appeared before the committee May 22, some committee members have concluded. "The impression was given that he was sent there by the appointments office and/or by me to, to specifically terminate people and recommend - that's absolutely false," he said, according to a transcript of Hogan's testimony provided by Ward B. Coe III, attorney to the legislative committee. "Nothing of the kind ever occurred."
But Coe gave the committee a June 24, 2004, e-mail from Steffen to Ehrlich speech writer Richard Cross in which Steffen says Hogan is looking for people who could be terminated. He uses the term "outs" to describe firings.