Several members of the House Appropriations Committee said they are examining the replacement of perhaps hundreds of state employees with other workers whose qualifications appear to rest mainly on their loyal support of the state's first Republican governor in 36 years.
Said Del. Galen R. Clagett of Frederick County: "It reminds me of the cell system in the Communist Party."
Republicans and some top Democrats deny that Ehrlich is handling personnel decisions differently from other governors. Changes are expected after such a long period of dominance by one party, they say, and because the previous Republican governor, Spiro T. Agnew, was in office for just two years.
"This sounds like more sour grapes from a majority party who lost the election in 2002," said Del. Anthony J. O'Donnell, the House minority whip from Southern Maryland. "You have to remember, the Democrats have controlled the levers of power for the best part of the last century."
Shareese N. DeLeaver, an Ehrlich spokeswoman, said the allegations were off-base.
"Appointments are made on the basis of qualifications and not race, gender or political affiliation, and to suggest otherwise is an insult and unfounded," she said.
Last week, the state treasury wrote a $100,000 check to Baltimore County Councilman Vincent J. Gardina to settle a wrongful firing lawsuit. Gardina, a Democrat, was hired during the Ehrlich administration to a contractual position with Maryland Environmental Service, a quasi-independent agency, and contends he was fired at the governor's behest after Ehrlich learned he was on the payroll.
Gardina argued that the only reason he was fired was that he was a Democrat - a violation of his constitutional rights.
Many of the administration's personnel decisions are being made through the Governor's Appointments Office and vetted by the governor's office, instead of by the personnel offices of individual agencies, according to a memorandum obtained by The Sun yesterday on the topic of "hiring and dismissals."
"Provide a list of your intended hires to the Appointments Office by e-mail or fax. Please include the position and the suggested salary level. The Appointments Office will vet these names with the governor's staff," reads the memo from Lawrence Hogan Jr., appointments secretary, to all department secretaries.
The memo is dated Feb. 3, 2003, about three weeks after Ehrlich took office, and does not distinguish between high-level and low-level positions.
"If that is the process, it is certainly very questionable, and we should be looking at it," said Del. Frank S. Turner, a Columbia Democrat and chairman of an appropriations oversight committee on personnel.
While the appointments office - an arm of the governor's office - is an appropriate venue for choosing high-ranking managers who make policy decisions, "there are other positions that are more professional positions, and we need to be protecting those people through the state personnel policies," Turner said.
Clagett, a former high school principal who helped rewrite Frederick county government personnel regulations, plans to introduce legislation this week that would significantly reduce the number of state employees classified as "special appointments," meaning they can be fired by the governor without reason.
He wants only workers who serve in policy-making roles to have that classification, reducing the number of special appointments to 850 from about 4,700.
Madaleno said many lawmakers have received anecdotal complaints about firings in state agencies that seem excessively driven by politics and that are depriving state government of expertise.
Del. Peter Franchot, a Montgomery County Democrat, said Ehrlich is bypassing the competitive job-posting requirements for lower-grade employees in many agencies. He plans to question officials in the state transportation department about the situation during a budget hearing today.
"Dozens and dozens, if not hundreds, of people have been brought into state government whose only criteria is loyalty is Bob," he said. "They advertise that in the workplace, and they create an atmosphere of fear and intimidation among career employees."
But Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller said lawmakers probably have little power to remedy the situation.
"The Democrats invented the spoils system, under Andrew Jackson," Miller said. "These guys are perfecting it."
Sun staff writer Andrew A. Green contributed to this article.