The puppet of demagoguery

August 11, 2006

Snip. Snip. By the time Joseph F. Steffen Jr. finished answering questions put to him Wednesday by state lawmakers looking into the firings of 340 employees by the Ehrlich administration, it was clear that someone had been hacking at the last few strings still attached to the once proud puppet.

Mr. Steffen, who apparently relished his hit-man status as he helped weed out workers perceived not to be staunch Ehrlich loyalists, sat alone with his lawyer under the glare of the TV cameras and the scrutiny of the very partisan bipartisan panel. Even Sen. J. Lowell Stoltzfus, a Republican leader who might have been Mr. Steffen's strongest protector, boycotted the hearing. Snip.

It's clear why the governor's office wants distance from Mr. Steffen. The man whom Ehrlich officials once described as "irrelevant to our world" apparently was more than a stranger to many with close daily ties to the governor. Before he was fired for spreading rumors online about Baltimore Mayor Martin O'Malley, Mr. Steffen routinely met with and discussed personnel issues with Lawrence J. Hogan Sr., the governor's appointments secretary. That's what Mr. Steffen told lawmakers. And that's what agitated the Democrats on the committee. When Mr. Hogan appeared before them in May, he said that he hardly knew the guy. Snip.

The hearings were to determine whether state workers were fired solely for political reasons. That hunt hasn't been very successful, but Mr. Steffen's words about his relationship with Mr. Hogan put new vigor into the chase. Democrats, noting that lying under oath could be a criminal offense, have threatened to turn the matter of conflicting testimony over to the local state's attorney. We can bet the Democrats would prefer to see a perjury charge slapped against Mr. Hogan, who's a much bigger catch than Mr. Steffen. Snip.

This turn of events is unfortunate. It means that what should have remained a summer inquiry into workers' rights has spilled into the campaign season, setting an unsavory scene for personal grudge fights between Republicans and Democrats that threaten to obscure more important issues.

In the meantime, don't worry too much about Mr. Steffen, whom his former bosses seem to have left dangling without much of a net. The state workers who lost their jobs because he fingered them? He doesn't even remember their names.

Snip.

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