Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. said yesterday he wants to determine whether Democratic rivals were behind exposing a former administration aide who participated in Internet rumor-mongering about Baltimore Mayor Martin O'Malley that the governor says he knew nothing about.
A place to start an inquiry, he said, was a threatening e-mail he received last month from Michelle Lane, a friend of the aide.
The governor's office yesterday released a February e-mail from Lane, a former state agency employee and Ehrlich congressional volunteer, which also contained personal messages Lane exchanged with Joseph F. Steffen Jr.
Steffen, known as the "Prince of Darkness" who worked on Ehrlich campaigns for years, is the administration staffer who resigned after acknowledging he participated in Internet rumors about O'Malley's private life. He was also assigned to several state agencies, and compiled lists of veteran workers who could be removed and replaced with others loyal to the governor.
Lane wrote the governor that she would release more damaging messages between her and Steffen - the first few were the "tip of the iceberg," she said - if the governor and his staff did not stop trying to implicate her in how the Steffen story wound up in The Washington Post and later in other news outlets. She said she was the subject of a "whisper campaign."
Appearing at his first news conference in weeks yesterday, Ehrlich was asked about the Lane e-mail, and he said he wanted to know whether it was part of an orchestrated effort by his opponents.
"We will be very helpful. We really want to know," Ehrlich said. "The people have a right to know, and we want to know as much as you want to know about political orchestration in this entire process by anybody connected with the Democratic Party or Democratic candidates."
The state Democratic Party and high-ranking officials have denied being involved with outing Steffen. They said the governor's comments seemed designed to divert attention from Steffen's activities.
House Speaker Michael E. Busch said Ehrlich's effort to switch attention from Steffen to the source of the reports of his activities looks desperate. "It's like getting caught speeding and telling the officer, 'The three guys in front of me were going faster. Why didn't you catch them?'" Busch said.
In the aftermath of the Steffen revelations, Busch and Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller have agreed to legislative hearings on whether Steffen and other Ehrlich staffers have combed deeply into state agencies, firing or forcing the resignation of competent workers considered insufficiently loyal to the governor.
Ehrlich said yesterday that he welcomed the probe, and predicted it would show many relatives and friends of Democratic lawmakers on the state payroll. "Bring it on," he said.
Del. Adrienne A.W. Jones, a Baltimore County Democrat named by Busch to direct the House portion of the inquiry, confirmed yesterday she met with Lane to discuss hiring and firing.
Last month, Lane sent the governor a message that Steffen sent her, which appears to validate Steffen's role in hiring and firing. In a discussion about trying to find a job for someone identified only as "B," Steffen described how Ehrlich aide Craig Chesek was starting as chief of staff at the Public Service Commission "and once [Kenneth] Schisler is confirmed as PSC Director, they can start cleaning house. ... I won't be going to Annapolis today as I cannot be directly linked - plausible deniability."
Lane's e-mail was sent to the governor and his top assistants four days after the Steffen story broke in the news, as administration officials began looking for the articles' initial source, who would have known about Steffen's postings on a conservative political Web site, www.FreeRepublic.com.
The attached e-mails between Steffen and Lane were not part of the disclosure of 14,500 documents two weeks ago in response to several media groups' public-records requests for Steffen material, presumably because they were transmitted between two private e-mail accounts.
Ehrlich has called Steffen a low-level staffer who was all but irrelevant to the administration, but previously released e-mails showed he was in communication with first lady Kendel Ehrlich and other top officials.
The governor said yesterday that Lane was a volunteer in his congressional office, and she was also part of the governor's transition team and held jobs in two agencies, the Department of Human Resources and the Governor's Office for Children, Youth and Families. But Ehrlich said yesterday that he did not know her personally.
"Getting a blackmail e-mail from a woman I don't know was an interesting experience, needless to say," Ehrlich said.
A letter released by the governor's office yesterday shows how Gil Genn, a lobbyist and former Democratic delegate, tried to help Lane get her job back after she was fired from a high-level job in the children's office in 2004. Genn wrote to the governor, saying Lane was terminated because she was critical of the appointment of Floyd Blair, the Ehrlich pick for Baltimore social services director who the O'Malley administration contended was unqualified for the post.
"There is an internal paper trail that is wide, incredibly damaging and a specific indictment of incompetence and cover-up at the highest levels," Genn wrote.
Lane could not be reached for comment yesterday. Her attorney, Daniel M. Clements, who has represented several former state workers who claimed they were illegally fired because of political affiliation, denied that Lane was engaging in blackmail.
"In typical fashion of this administration, they were attempting to get Michelle fired from her present employment [as a Towson University nurse]," Clements said. "She learned of it, learned the governor was behind it, and sent him an e-mail saying cut it out."
Clements said Lane was not MD4BUSH, the still-anonymous FreeRepublic.com member who some believe entrapped Steffen, writing as NCPAC, into a conversation about the O'Malley rumors. In exchanges between NCPAC and MD4BUSH, Steffen said there was a coordinated effort to give the rumors "float."
Ehrlich chief counsel Jervis S. Finney, who was assigned to investigate the role of Steffen or any other state officials in spreading O'Malley rumors, said he has found no additional evidence of administration involvement.