Steffen testimony sought again

`Star witness' left personnel panel with questions

August 25, 2006|By Jennifer Skalka | Jennifer Skalka,Sun reporter

The legislative committee investigating Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr.'s personnel practices filed a petition in Harford County Circuit Court this week to compel former gubernatorial aide Joseph F. Steffen to testify. Again.

Steffen appeared before the committee this month, but with an attorney by his side, he declined to answer several questions about his contact with individuals in state government and his employment, among other matters.

"He's the star witness, and there are some very critical questions that I think needed to be answered that get to the heart of the firings of state employees," said Sen. Thomas M. Middleton, a Southern Maryland Democrat and the committee's co-chairman.

The committee has spent the past year evaluating whether administration officials fired longtime state workers because they were Democrats. Republicans say the investigation amounts to an election-year smear campaign against the governor. Democrats say high-performing state workers who were not political appointees were wrongly terminated to make way for Ehrlich loyalists.

Steffen testified that he was placed in three state agencies to examine the functions of those departments. But he said he made personnel recommendations to the governor's appointments office, which usually handles political positions exclusively - and he said party affiliation was a consideration in his suggested firings.

Administration officials, including Appointments Secretary Lawrence J. Hogan Jr. and Ehrlich communications director Paul Schurick, have distanced themselves from Steffen, calling him a rogue operator.

Steffen and his attorney, George S. Robinson IV, could not be reached for comment yesterday. A spokesman for the governor declined comment.

The committee also wants to hear more from Craig B. Chesek and Gregory J. Maddalone - Ehrlich employees who held positions similar to Steffen's and who at the advice of counsel also declined to answer many questions when they testified in May.

The committee's petition to compel them to testify will be heard Oct. 26 in Baltimore County Circuit Court. Assistant Attorney General Robert A. Zarnoch said Steffen's attorney has agreed to an order speeding up the process. Zarnoch said he hopes to hear from Steffen by then.

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