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Analysis combs contents of Steffen's state computers

Sun Staff

The state computers assigned to gubernatorial aide Joseph F. Steffen Jr., fired for spreading Internet rumors about Baltimore Mayor Martin O'Malley, contained 3,690 references to "Martin," 2,005 mentions of "affair," and 3,011 hits for the term "freerepublic," the name of the conservative Web site where Steffen posted messages, according to an analysis released yesterday.

A lawyer for the governor insisted that the results provide no evidence that Steffen used the computers to disseminate messages about O'Malley, or that Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. or his top aides were involved in a political plot to damage the mayor.

"Neither Governor Ehrlich nor his staff, nor his statehouse advisers, were involved in such rumors," lawyer Jervis S. Finney wrote yesterday in a letter to House Speaker Michael E. Busch that accompanied a report from the New Jersey-based technology company that examined the data. Finney released the report to Busch voluntarily; the speaker had in the past made critical comments about Finney's objectivity in leading an investigation into Steffen.

Finney sent Steffen's computer hard-drive contents to ICG Inc. of Princeton, N.J., in March, a month after the governor fired his aide for acknowledging that he talked about the O'Malley rumors on

State officials did such a poor job securing and copying the contents of Steffen's computer that the data it contained can no longer be considered valid, the company concluded. But the firm still undertook an analysis.

Ehrlich had asked his lawyer to conduct an investigation into the scope of Steffen's involvement in the rumors, as well as into the identity of MD4BUSH, the name of a visitor to the Free Republic site who appears to have ensnared Steffen into talking about the rumors. Steffen, writing on the site under the name "ncpac," appeared to have posted some messages during work hours. The timing of the messages and the computer used to send them was not addressed in the report.

Democrats criticized the findings, saying Finney never interviewed Steffen to determine whether his political activities were coordinated with others. Steffen had referred in Free Republic comments to a "few people" giving the rumors "float."

O'Malley called the investigation "silly" and "a sham."

"Who was Steffen working with?" O'Malley asked. "Who were the other people Steffen bragged about working with?"

A mayoral aide, Steve Kearney said: "This wasn't an investigation. This was part of a Joe Steffen rehabilitation campaign."

Finney said that his office has had conversations with a lawyer for Steffen that were "forthright and sufficient."

Busch, the House Speaker, said the Ehrlich administration cannot conduct an independent investigation of Steffen's activities because previously released e-mails show that the aide communicated regularly with high-level administration figures, including first lady Kendel Ehrlich.

"I don't care what the disk says. There was a direct connection between Mr. Steffen and the administration," Busch said.

Finney said that his investigation is continuing and includes other topics. "Related, collateral aspects of my investigation seem to show that ... the person or persons operating under the devious MD4BUSH alias (unidentified by me as yet) were/are apparently heavily involved with The question as to certain legislators remains unresolved," he wrote.

While the computer report shows no links to the state Democratic Party, Finney said he was basing his conclusion on media reports and interviews with people who wish to remain anonymous.

The report was released a day after O'Malley accused Ehrlich of using a "taxpayer-financed dirty tricks team" to comb through e-mails of his brother-in-law, state Public Service Commissioner J. Joseph "Max" Curran III, to find a reference to O'Malley's supposed marital infidelities. Curran was reacting in the e-mail to a comment made by his sister - O'Malley's wife, Katie Curran O'Malley - about "rumors" in a 2000 Washington Post story.

Curran has filed a public records request to determine who scoured his e-mails. His attorney, Tim Maloney, said the search may have violated state and federal criminal laws, because Curran did not authorize it. The Public Service Commission is an independent regulatory agency not under direct control of the governor.

O'Malley and his allies have accused Ehrlich of trying to divert attention from Steffen, who immediately left his state job after it was discovered that he was helping spread rumors.

Finney asked ICG to search for evidence in several areas, including whether Ehrlich was involved in spreading rumors, whether Steffen was appointed to the Maryland Insurance Administration for the purpose of identifying workers disloyal to the governor, and whether the Washington Post was connected to MD4BUSH.

The company created keywords to search the disks. "Girlfriend" appeared 349 times, and "cheating" 340 times. "Extramarital" appeared 37 times, while "promiscuous" yielded 31 hits. The report did not specify where the terms appeared - whether in e-mails, stored Web pages or documents.

Names were also used as keywords. "Enright," the last name of one of O'Malley's closest aides, Michael Enright, appeared 4,293 times. "MOM," a common acronym for the mayor, showed up 9,918 times.

The company acknowledged that it did not perform a thorough search of the keyword "hits." "The review of 513,695 keyword instances would require resources well beyond the scope of this engagement," the company wrote in its report.

Still, Finney felt confident enough in the results to determine that the inquiry gave Ehrlich and his top aides a clean bill of health.

Sun staff writers Andrew A. Green and Jill Rosen contributed to this article.

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