Battle over Ehrlich's firing of state workers rages on

Issue is Assembly's subpoena power

June 10, 2008|By Laura Smitherman | Laura Smitherman,Sun reporter

It has been 18 months since former Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. left office, but the legal battle over whether he illegally targeted longtime state employees for political firings continued yesterday in a case to determine the extent of the General Assembly's subpoena powers.

The Maryland Court of Appeals, the state's highest court, heard arguments yesterday about the refusal of two state employees to answer questions during a May 2006 hearing before a special legislative committee. The employees, who allegedly were dispatched to agencies to target political enemies for firing, have appealed a lower court decision compelling them to respond to the questions.

The flap over what some contend were arbitrary and unfair personnel decisions under Ehrlich, a Republican, prompted a yearlong investigation a few years ago by the legislature, which is dominated by Democrats. The special committee issued its report in October 2006, and Ehrlich lost his re-election bid the next month to Gov. Martin O'Malley, a Democrat, but the case continued to reverberate in the State House.

Dan Friedman, an assistant attorney general and counsel to the legislature, argued yesterday that even though some of the issues raised by the committee might be moot, the legislature's authority to compel testimony needs to be protected. The committee is still waiting for the two state employees to answer about a dozen questions so that it can amend its report if necessary.

"First of all, the legislature is entitled to the answers to these important questions," Friedman said. "And second of all, there is the principle that you can't stall out an investigation and hope that people will just forget."

Donald Braden, an attorney representing the former employees, Gregory Maddalone and Craig Chesek, said he is fighting to prevent the legislature from abusing its power. The legislature changed the law to clarify its subpoena powers during the 2007 legislative session, shortly after the committee issued its report. Braden said the court should make its decision based on the law in effect before then.

"So every time a legislative body does something they don't have the power to do, but by the time someone challenges them, they go and change the law?" Braden said. "That's a pretty dangerous way to run a government."

Ehrlich's rise to power marked the first time in decades that the governor's mansion had switched parties, and Democrats accused him of abusing his power to hire and fire workers. About 7,000 state employees serve at-will, but most of them have no political or policymaking role.

Republicans have since alleged that O'Malley's administration also has fired state employees for political reasons - they point to an administrative law judge's ruling that Maddalone was fired illegally - and they have called the special committee's investigation an election-year smear campaign.

Braden argued in court that the special committee, formed by the Legislative Policy Committee, didn't have authority to issue a subpoena under the law. Braden characterized the change in law related to the authority of such committees as "self-serving."

Friedman said the policy committee had the authority to delegate subpoena power to the special committee. He said Maddalone and Chesek did not have the right to "start and stop" their testimony or to "pick and choose" the questions they wanted to answer.

Maddalone was an employee of the Maryland Department of Transportation. His hiring by Ehrlich's administration drew ridicule from Democrats because he lacked a college degree and his primary professional experience was as an ice dancer. Chesek was an employee of the Public Service Commission.

Braden said that they refused to answer questions related to personnel matters that are confidential. "Every other question was answered," he said.

laura.smitherman@baltsun.com

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