E-mails show Steffen not 'irrelevant,' 'mid-level'

Michael Olesker

Mayor Martin O'Malley, wife Catherine

Baltimore Mayor Martin O'Malley and his wife, Catherine, today walk outside City Hall, where the couple denounced rumors of infidelity spread by an aide to Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. (Sun photo by Christopher T. Assaf / February 9, 2005)

IN THE continuing saga of Official State Dirtball Joseph Steffen, a new name enters the mix: Kendel S. Ehrlich. It turns out, the day before Steffen was to be outed for spreading filth about Mayor Martin O'Malley, he turned to the first lady of Maryland for a shoulder to cry on. Relax, Kendel Ehrlich told Steffen, we need you. The next day, Steffen was shoved offstage. As Shakespeare didn't quite say: Out, out, damned Dirtball.

The Kendel Ehrlich e-mail was the most fascinating item uncovered by two dozen reporters scrounging through 14,500 pages of e-mails and other documents the Ehrlich administration reluctantly released Friday. They did it because The Sun and nine other news organizations filed Freedom of Information Act requests. But the governor's advisers held back thousands more pages, citing legal reasons.

The records were requested because everybody wants to know just how close this Steffen was to the inner circle of Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. "Irrelevant to our world," Ehrlich press secretary Paul E. Schurick said this month.

Right.

We already know Steffen goes back to Ehrlich's early political days, when his campaigns were regularly accused of playing dirty tricks. We already knew that Steffen, under scrutiny for his alleged role in politically motivated dismissals of scores of state workers, is known as the Prince of Darkness. But we now learn, according to a Steffen e-mail, that it was Ehrlich himself who bestowed the nickname on Steffen.

"Having been dubbed the Prince of Darkness by the governor during his 1994 run for Congress does have its burdens," Steffen wrote to an inner-circle group that included the governor's speech writer, his deputy appointments secretary, two deputy press secretaries and two others. He went on to describe "two separate occasions" when Ehrlich and Secretary of Appointments Lawrence J. Hogan Jr. walked into receptions, saw Steffen and, "shout[ed] out, 'Prince of Darkness.'"

Such hilarity! Such fun! And never mind any hatchet-man reasons behind such a swell nickname.

We also know, of course, that Steffen was throwing around rumors about the mayor of Baltimore's sex life, and we've already been told, in previously outed Steffen e-mails, that "a lot of the reason everybody knows [O'Malley's] history is because of what has gone on beneath the surface. ... A few folks put in a lot of effort to ensure the story got some real float."

A few folks? Which folks? Nobody around here, the Ehrlich folks insist. In their mad scramble to distance themselves from Steffen, they've not only called him "irrelevant to our world," but a mere "mid-level" state functionary who had no meaningful access to the Ehrlich inner circle.

So here's a question:

Who among us, seen by the company's big shots as "irrelevant to our world" and "mid-level," instinctively turns to the boss's wife when we get ourselves into trouble?

There are roughly 50,000 state employees (not including the state higher-education system). If Steffen was merely a "mid-level" guy, what does that mean? That 25,000 other state employees feel comfortable reaching out to Kendel Ehrlich when things get sticky?

In his e-mail to the first lady of Maryland, Steffen says he will "not hesitate to throw myself on the grenade if that is what I think is needed - or is desired from above."

This is fine macho John Wayne-type language, but it raises another question:

Why did Steffen sense any conceivable need to throw himself on a grenade? In wartime, such selfless gestures are made to protect others. In this case - protection from what? If Steffen is merely this rogue operative going his own way, as Ehrlich's people insist, then why would anyone in the governor's inner circle need protection?

Last Friday, at the same time Ehrlich's staff was releasing the 14,500 pages of e-mails, they were simultaneously issuing a statement from Schurick. The intent was to offer further distance from Steffen. The statement says the governor is "deeply troubled and disappointed that any member of his administration would act in mean-spirited ways," and that Ehrlich is "appalled that Steffen also trafficked in insensitive and mean-spirited words."

This, from the guy whose previous campaigns roused cries of "dirty tricks" by fellow Republican Thomas W. Chamberlain, and by Democrats Gerry L. Brewster, Connie Galiazzo DeJuliis and Kathleen Kennedy Townsend. This, from the guy who accused House Speaker Michael E. Busch of "playing the race card" because he disagreed with him over slots. This, from the guy who went on the radio to call multiculturalism "crap" when he thought it might score a few political points.

With much of the talk about Dirtball Steffen revolving around his alleged role in politically motivated dismissals of state workers, last week's Schurick statement goes on to deny Steffen had any such role because "the record of his tenure makes the lack of any managerial or personnel authority plainly apparent."

The governor's folks seem to have no concept of the word "authority."

This is the administration that brought in a fellow named Gregory J. Maddalone, whose previous work experience was professional ice dancing, and made him the port of Baltimore's legislative liaison. This, while making conditions so unlivable for the highly esteemed (and apolitical) James J. White that he left his job as port director.

Thus adding White to a whole list of state employees who were pushed from their jobs, or simply jumped in exasperation.

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