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)

The state employee who was forced to resign this week for spreading rumors about Martin O'Malley's personal life has sent an e-mail apologizing to the mayor and his family for actions he admitted were "reckless" and "mean-spirited."

Addressed to "Mister Mayor," the e-mail was sent Wednesday but reached O'Malley's office only yesterday, after city staffers discovered it among hundreds of e-mail messages about potholes and other run-of-the-mill constituent concerns.

"I am writing today to apologize to you, your wife, and your children for my thoughtless and indefensible promulgation of rumors concerning your family life," Joseph F. Steffen Jr. wrote. "I have no excuse for joining web (or other) conversations that are reckless, mean-spirited, and personally damaging in nature."

Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. said he fired Steffen on Tuesday after his longtime campaign and congressional aide admitted that he posted rumors on a conservative Web site alleging the mayor had extramarital affairs.

O'Malley, a Democrat who says he will try to unseat the Republican governor next year, said in an emotional appearance with his wife Wednesday that the rumors are untrue and that he has never been unfaithful to her. He said the stories are part of a political smear campaign.

"We have received an e-mail through the baltimorecity.gov Web site allegedly from Steffen," said Raquel Guillory, O'Malley's spokeswoman. "The mayor has no further comment."

Reached at his home yesterday, Steffen confirmed that he sent the message but declined to comment further. "That is definitely my letter," he said.

The message surfaced yesterday as Democratic lawmakers called the rumors an attack by the Ehrlich administration, with some still pressing for an independent investigation.

Both Ehrlich and O'Malley were silent about the matter - declining to comment during public appearances - and the governor's legal counsel said he had begun what promises to be an extensive investigation.

"I'm really not focused or dwelling on that," O'Malley said in Annapolis. "I'm back on the people's business now."

At about the same time, Ehrlich appeared in the governor's mansion for a tsunami relief event and left without taking questions.

Steffen's message to the mayor was sent at 3:34 p.m. Wednesday under the subject heading: "My sincerest apologies." Its tone was far more contrite than that of postings he made the night before.

"Hell, this might even burnish my reputation," read one message posted Tuesday night.

"I know the Governor, who I am sure is rightfully greatly disappointed in me, asked earlier today that I formally apologize to you," Steffen's message to the mayor said.

"However, please be advised the Governor's request is not the only reason I am apologizing. As a father, myself, I can only imagine what it must be like to be the subject of family-altering rumors, and the effect said rumors can have on spouses and children.

"I am truly sorry, ashamed, and remorseful and I ask that you and your family please find it in your hearts to forgive me."

Shareese DeLeaver, spokeswoman for Ehrlich, said the letter "speaks for itself," but noted the governor had publicly called on Steffen to apologize.

Deborah Martinez, a spokeswoman for the Maryland Republican Party, said she was glad to hear of the apology.

But Josh White, executive director of the Maryland Democratic Party, called the message "lame and immature" because it was in the form of an e-mail instead of a more formal, conventional letter.