Firing probe starts calmly; let's see if that lasts

Michael Olesker

Annapolis - Del. Adrienne Jones, lugging a bulging briefcase, heads for the door with a guy trying to cut her off. She won't make it, not with that briefcase slowing her down. She's trying to vacate the premises after yesterday's first session of the Special Committee on State Employee Rights and Protections. They're the legislators trying to find whether the Ehrlich administration has been taking away people's state jobs just because they have the wrong political leanings.

"Are you getting much feedback from people who think they've been violated?" Jones was asked now.

"E-mails and letters," she says.

"Not phone calls?"

"It is my experience," she says, "that people who commit their complaints to writing are far more likely to be honest about their complaints."

It should be noted, she has experience in these matters. Jones is Baltimore County's Director of Fair Practices when not absorbed in state politics. She hears complaints about alleged job discrimination for a living. She's been in this line of work for 30 years.

"And you're getting e-mails and letters?" she was asked now.

"Oh, yes."

"Are they like the complaints you've gotten over the years in Baltimore County?"

"Oh, no."

The implication is: These are worse, they're more egregious. Jones is co-chair of this committee. They met here yesterday to go over some ground rules, and they'll meet again Thursday. Then they expect to start bringing in people, including longtime state bureaucrats, who believe their jobs were lost or threatened for reasons having nothing to do with their professional abilities.

Much acrimony has surrounded this committee. Members of the Ehrlich administration have suggested a kind of political witch hunt. Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich's communications director, Paul Schurick, has complained of "some legislators who have no interest in a fair and objective look."

Democrats have responded by asking, If the Ehrlich administration has done nothing wrong, what is he worried about? Maybe this committee will find nobody's got any legitimate complaints to make. This is why Delegate Jones was questioned yesterday.

"These letters and e-mails," she was asked. "Are there many of them?"

She pointed to her briefcase.

"They're right here," she said.

The briefcase was thick with papers. They stretched the leather where it didn't want to stretch. Some of them stuck through the opening at the top. Jones spoke in quiet, even tones, which reflected the mood of the morning, but she spoke of a "deep concern" over the complaints she's been getting from state workers.

Much of this started last winter, with allegations about the departed Joseph F. Steffen Jr. He's the hatchet man Ehrlich puckishly dubbed the Prince of Darkness. He's the one who spread rumors about Mayor Martin O'Malley's marriage. He's also the one allegedly sent into state agencies to root out those deemed not sufficiently committed to this governor.

As such, he's also become the unfortunate poster boy of an administration whose leader calls for "respect" among political leaders, and then turns loose the likes of Steffen and the unrelenting language of macho contentiousness.

So yesterday's meeting was a relief, because it had a nice tone to it. Everybody was civil. Sen. Thomas M. Middleton of Charles County, the committee co-chair, declared, "We're gonna have a real love affair here this morning." He had a twinkle in his eye when he said the words, but at least they held true for the moment.

It might not stay so calm. When the meeting ended, there was Republican J. Lowell Stoltzfus, the Senate minority leader from Somerset County.

"I'm concerned about the emotional appeal of people who have been terminated, and coming in here," Stoltzfus said. He paused for a moment. "You know," he said, "we don't want a freak show."

A few seats from Stoltzfus, Sen. Brian Frosh of Montgomery County had a different take. It wasn't about freak shows, it was about people losing their jobs for no reason, he said.

"How do we make sure we don't ruin state service?" Frosh asked. "You go to state agencies, you want competent people. ... People should not be terminated for their political affiliation."

"Have you been contacted by people who have lost their jobs?" he was asked.

"Yes," he said. "More than a dozen e-mails. It's pretty alarming stuff. Whether they'll come in and testify, I don't know. They may still be working for the state, and fear their jobs are in jeopardy. ... It takes guts to take on a state government."

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