Meanwhile, Ehrlich said that Steffen - who is also considering running for governor against his former boss - should feel free to join the 2006 gubernatorial contest.
Annapolis with his son, Drew.
The Sun reported yesterday that Steffen said he was authorized by Ehrlich's chief of staff and the governor's appointments office to identify employees to be fired who were not performing adequately. His remarks come as a bipartisan committee of lawmakers investigates whether those state employees - and perhaps others - were fired unfairly or as a result of their party affiliation.
"He confirms something that the administration has been denying ever since the Steffen story surfaced, that they were firing low-level people - secretaries and file clerks - and now you have it from the horse's mouth that they were," said Sen. Brian E. Frosh, a Montgomery County Democrat. "They were firing these people for political purposes. They were firing them so they could use their jobs for patronage."
Ehrlich said yesterday that Steffen's remarks confirm that his administration was using one of the perks of power - the ability to put people whom the governor and his aides prefer in some state jobs.
"We wanted, obviously, to bring in some new blood," Ehrlich said. "You get to do that when you are governor. And it was not on the basis of party."
But Frosh and some of his colleagues on the committee want to learn more about why Steffen, a Republican operative who had worked for the governor in various capacities for more than a decade and who relished his nickname, "The Prince of Darkness," would have the authority to determine which state employees should be terminated.
"I think the personnel group is going to be interested in why it is that the chief of staff of the governor would ask someone to go into agencies and usurp the authority of managers in those agencies," said Del. Maggie L. McIntosh, a Baltimore Democrat. "If people aren't performing, it's their supervisors and managers that ought to be making those decisions, not Darth Vader, not the Prince of Darkness."
Steffen resigned in February after he was discovered to have posted derogatory messages on the Internet about the personal life of Baltimore Mayor Martin O'Malley, a Democrat who has since declared his candidacy for governor. Steffen's name comes up regularly during meetings of the committee reviewing the governor's personnel practices.
His latest remarks have sparked a new interest among committee members in learning more about how state employees were targeted for firing. The committee has secured the authority to subpoena witnesses, and Steffen told The Sun last weekend that he would be willing to testify.
"I would like to see him come before the committee," said Sen. Thomas M. Middleton, the committee's co-chairman and a Charles County Democrat.
Sen. J. Lowell Stoltzfus, a Republican on the committee who has chastised Democrats for targeting the governor unfairly during an election season, said Steffen's comments don't show any wrongdoing by the administration.
"I think he clarified that he was not sent in to remove Democrats," Stoltzfus said. "I don't think you have anything there."
Stoltzfus also said Steffen's remarks, which included an acknowledgement that he had purposefully timed his statements to coincide with Halloween and that he is considering a run for governor as a Libertarian, reveal nothing more than a man who "likes to see his name in the paper."
"The fact that he comes out on Halloween shows that things are a little crossed up there," Stoltzfus said. "Steffen is obviously a bitter man right now."
Senate President Thomas V. "Mike" Miller said Steffen is a "side note" in the legislative probe. The committee's main task, he said, is to determine how to protect the nearly 7,000 state workers who are not covered by civil service rules and can be fired for any reason.
"I think the committee is validated with or without Steffen's remarks," Miller said. "I've known dozens of [state workers] that were wrongfully terminated. Good, qualified people that wanted to make a career in state government."
House Speaker Michael E. Busch said he was pleased to see Steffen express remorse for his past political tactics, and he said that if Steffen does decide to run for governor he could spice up the debates.
"I think that it would be an interesting irony to see him stand between Mr. Ehrlich and Mr. O'Malley on a podium during a debate," Busch said.
The personnel committee meets tomorrow for its first public session with a new special counsel, Baltimore attorney Ward B. Coe III. Middleton said Coe is expected to help the committee draft its next steps.