By By David Nitkin and Andrew A. Green and Michael Dresser
Mar 12, 2005 at 3:00 AM
The Ehrlich administration released 14,500 e-mails and other documents yesterday from former aide Joseph F. Steffen Jr., revealing a portrait of a political operative who had regular access to the highest levels of government and was actively involved in an effort to stack state agencies with workers loyal to the governor.
Steffen was forced to resign last month after acknowledging he posted Internet rumors about Baltimore Mayor Martin O'Malley. His ties to Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. were so close that in February, as a Washington Post reporter was working on an article about the rumors, Steffen e-mailed first lady Kendel Ehrlich to tell her of his problem.
Steffen told her he was "radioactive at present" and blamed Democrats O'Malley, U.S. Rep. C.A. Dutch Ruppersberger and Baltimore County Executive James T. Smith Jr. for orchestrating an effort to tarnish him and the governor.
He said he believed a former appointee of the administration contacted reporters through O'Malley's office and the appointee "has suspicions of a number of things."
"Though everyone's told me not to worry about this matter, as I made clear to [Ehrlich chief of staff Steve] Kreseski and [communications director Paul E.] Schurick, etc. I will not hesitate to throw myself on the grenade if that is what I think is needed - or is desired from above," Steffen wrote to the first lady.
Kendel Ehrlich replied six days later: "Relax. You'll be fine. We need you. Ken." He was forced to resign the next day.
The first lady played down her contact with Steffen in a statement released last night and said she did not know about the rumors about O'Malley when she responded to the e-mail.
"She had a professional acquaintance with Joe Steffen in the same manner she has an acquaintance with many of the governor's employees and campaign volunteers," the statement said.
The e-mails appear to contradict assertions by top Ehrlich officials that Steffen - who had worked on Ehrlich campaigns for two decades and who had positions in three state agencies - was a rogue operator who overestimated his importance.
Earlier this month, Schurick said that Steffen was "irrelevant to our world."
The documents show that Steffen was involved with personnel actions at the Department of Juvenile Services and the Department of Human Resources. When he grew tired of one of his positions at the Governor's Finance Office, he contacted Jervis S. Finney, the governor's lawyer, to ask for a new post.
"I am looking to move onto a position where I have more authority on personnel and/or policy matters and where my efforts lead to more tangible results," Steffen said in an e-mail to Finney and Mary Beth Carozza, a deputy chief of staff, on Jan 19.
Finney has been asked by Ehrlich to conduct an investigation into whether Steffen used state computers to spread rumors about O'Malley, but some lawmakers have called for an independent inquiry, saying Finney is too close to the situation to perform the task.
Although he received communication from Steffen, Finney said he does not believe there is any conflict with the investigation that Ehrlich asked him to undertake. Finney said he is not investigating Steffen but the issues related to rumors about Mayor Martin O'Malley's marriage.
"The governor directed me to make a tight, appropriate internal investigation of 'rumors' about a 'subject Baltimore City official,'" Finney said. "There has been no other investigation."
The records made available yesterday in response to a Freedom of Information Act request from several news organizations appear to make no mention of O'Malley or rumors about extramarital affairs. The governor's office withheld thousands of documents, however, citing legal reasons.
O'Malley has said the rumors about his marriage are untrue. Spokesmen for O'Malley and Smith said yesterday that they were not involved in exposing Steffen. Ruppersberger also said last night that he was not involved.
Some political observers say the e-mails illustrate close ties between Steffen and Ehrlich's top circle. "This puts to rest any notion that he was just one of 50,000 employees," as the governor claimed last month, said Thomas F. Schaller, a political science professor at the , who has Democratic leanings.
"Fifty-thousand employees don't e-mail the first lady of Maryland. She clearly knows that the guy is in trouble. Why is she communicating with him?"
Copies of e-mails show that Steffen was aggressively scouring the personnel charts of various agencies where he was assigned, sometimes saying he was acting on the governor's behalf.
"Though it really doesn't need to be said, I have full authority, indeed I am at times directed/mandated, to contact individuals directly regarding meetings and other requests on behalf of the Governor," Steffen wrote to Byron J. Harris, chief of staff at the Department of Human Resources, on Dec. 18, 2003.
As he sought out workers for termination, Steffen sometimes kept a figurine of the Grim Reaper on his desk. He seemed to relish his nickname, "The Prince of Darkness," and suggested in one message that the governor gave it to him.
"Having been dubbed 'The Prince of Darkness' by the Governor during his 1994 run for Congress does have its burdens, one of which is to perpetuate the myth - especially when it's obvious the myth ain't going anywhere anytime soon," he wrote in an April 5, 2003, e-mail.
In the immediate aftermath of Steffen's firing last month, Maryland Insurance Commissioner Alfred W. Redmer Jr. denied that the former Ehrlich associate had any role in personnel decisions.
But in a June 23 e-mail, to Ehrlich appointments official Diane Baker, Steffen requested a list of Maryland Insurance Administration employees who serve at the will of the governor.
"I realize this isn't officially what I do any longer, but ... there are some things here I don't see being changed without a shove coming from your end," Steffen wrote. The next day Baker replied that "Larry" - apparently Appointments Secretary Lawrence Hogan - "was very frank with Al about the disappointment with lack of movement at MIA. Al didn't seem to like it, but tough."
Based on previous reports on how Steffen operated in various agencies, House and Senate Democratic leaders have called for an investigation into Ehrlich administration hiring practices. House Speaker Michael E. Busch said yesterday that the documents reinforced his desire for an inquiry after the legislative session.
"It heightens the issue," Busch said. "I don't think it's appropriate to send a person from agency to agency to identify people they want to get rid of. This is about the integrity of the state work force."
Schurick said in a statement that Ehrlich believes Steffen's "mannerisms" at work as revealed in the documents "are unacceptable and will not be tolerated in any situation at any time."
But he said Steffen helped change the culture at several organizations, and "there are no facts [to] support the political charges leveled at the administration" about wholesale firings based on political leanings.
Sun staff writers Ivan Penn, Sumathi Reddy, Annie Linskey and Gus G. Sentementes contributed to this article.