Joseph F. Steffen Jr., the aide to Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. who was banished after discussing rumors about Mayor Martin O'Malley on the Internet, said he was sent into state agencies to identify employees who should be fired not because of their party affiliation but because they were not performing up to par.
Breaking his silence eight months after leaving his job, Steffen said in an interview with The Sun that he was neither the rogue operator nor the bit player that Ehrlich aides are calling him, but was dispatched to several agencies under orders from the top levels of state government.
Steffen also said he is contemplating his own run for governor as a Libertarian.
A special legislative committee has begun a review of the Ehrlich administration's personnel policies. Democrats say Steffen was part of a team hunting for politically disloyal workers. But Steffen said there was nothing improper about his efforts.
Steffen said that although Ehrlich did not personally ask him to examine operations at the State Department of Human Resources and other agencies, the governor's then-chief of staff, Steven L. Kreseski, and the governor's appointments office directed him to do the work.
"Did I recommend that people be removed? Yes," said Steffen, who worked for Ehrlich for more than two decades and was dubbed the "Prince of Darkness" by the governor. "Were all of them removed? No."
Paul E. Schurick, Ehrlich's communications director, disputed Steffen's assertions.
"Regardless of what he thinks he was there to do, the fact is he was never dispatched into those agencies to do what he thinks he was," Schurick said yesterday. "Joe was given a job in DHR and a couple of other agencies; it was never his role, stated or otherwise, to do that."
Kreseski, who left the Ehrlich administration this past summer, said that Steffen worked under the same hierarchy as any agency employee. Kreseski said he did not have regular contact with Steffen or know his exact duties.
"Like many of the agency appointees, Joe was asked to look for ways to improve delivery of services," Kreseski said. "He reported through a chain of command, which went through the appropriate Cabinet secretaries, and then deputy chiefs of staff, and then to me."
For about two decades, Steffen toiled in relative anonymity as an Ehrlich staffer and campaign worker. He resigned in February after his Internet postings about O'Malley became public, and he said top administration officials offered assistance - presumably help finding a job. But the help never materialized.
Steffen said he was not surprised and is not bitter.
He used the intervening time, he said, to return to his political roots. He said he is contemplating entering the 2006 race for governor as a Libertarian candidate.
"You get into politics because you believe in ideals," Steffen said. "When you are in exile like I have been, you have time to remember why you got into it."
What he believes in, he says, is "the most limited government possible while still remaining a civilized society."
"For better or worse, my name ID is pretty high," Steffen said. "There is never a better time to put the Libertarian Party on the map."
Ehrlich's political opponents say it was Steffen who was behind deceptive fliers, smear campaigns and other tricks while he worked for Ehrlich. He now says he regrets many of the hardball political tactics he employed over the years.
He harbors no ill will, he said, that those same tactics were turned against him. An Internet poster using the handle MD4BUSH engaged Steffen, who wrote under the name NCPAC on the Web site freerepub lic.com, in a discussion about O'Malley. After the postings appeared in news articles, MD4BUSH disappeared.
Although one of Steffen's Internet messages referred to "a few people" spreading the rumors, Steffen maintains he acted alone and was not as part of a coordinated GOP effort to disparage O'Malley.
"I'm not going to get into specifics, but I did a lot of things I'm not proud of to this day. I would apologize to a lot of people right now," he said. "To a great degree, I got what I had coming."
Schurick, Steffen said, extended the offer of help when the Internet postings became known. "Schurick said, 'This is coming directly from the governor - Don't worry, Joe. We'll take care of you,'" Steffen said.
Schurick denied that he made the pledge. "I don't believe I ever would have said that," he said. "I don't believe that I did."
Schurick said he had no comment on Steffen's potential candidacy for governor.
After his story exploded into view, Steffen became a symbol of the hidden side of modern politics, where the limits are stretched in pursuit of electoral victory. Ehrlich distanced himself from Steffen, and O'Malley proclaimed that the rumors of marital infidelity - which had been percolating for months if not years, and could now be linked to an Ehrlich aide - were untrue. O'Malley is seeking the Democratic nomination for governor.
O'Malley campaign manager Jonathan Epstein said the mayor had no comment on Steffen.
Until now, Steffen, 46, has remained silent - pondering what to do next. He has let his black Vandyke expand into a full beard, and has changed apartments because of death threats. He recently obtained a job in the private sector, but declined to give details.
It was smart politics, he said, for Ehrlich and his top aides to turn their backs on him.
"Any living organism has to do what they have to do to survive," Steffen said.
Steffen takes notoriety with a sense of humor. After meeting with a reporter Saturday night, Steffen headed to a costume party. He was going as himself, wearing a mask of his face printed in Baltimore's City Paper and a T-shirt he says was given to him by the governor's appointments office - which controls hiring and firing.
The front of the shirt read, "Ehrlich-Steele. History is Here." The back read "Trench-coat man," a joking reference to rumors of Ehrlich staffers who would arrive at state agencies, give termination letters to longtime employees who served in Democratic administrations and usher them to the door.
A legislative committee is now investigating Ehrlich's firing practices, disturbed about tales of men in coats looking for low-level bureaucrats to fire. Republicans - who control the executive branch of government for the first time in nearly four decades - denounce the probe as a political witch hunt by a party out of power.
Steffen said he doesn't think lawmakers will find anything. He said he was not ordered to seek out Democrats for firing; indeed, he said, the first two people he recommended for firing were Republicans, and he defended Democrats.
"I never once asked anybody their party affiliation. Ever," he said.
But Steffen says he was told by the governor's appointments office to look for low-level positions to clear out. "I was told by people in the appointments office to look deeper, look for file clerks, secretaries," he said. "We have people who can do these jobs," he said he was told.
Did that bother him? "A little bit," he said.
"I don't think anything illegal occurred," he said. "If I'm subpoenaed, I'll testify in a heartbeat. I have nothing to hide."
To appear on the ballot next November as a Libertarian, Steffen would need to earn the nomination of the state party central committee next spring. Party Chairman Dave Sten said yesterday that although he doesn't expect many people to seek the nomination, he had never heard of Steffen.
Steffen acknowledges that his candidacy could draw votes from Ehrlich, because Libertarians, with their limited-government view, are likely to vote Republican given a choice between the two major parties. But retribution is not what he has in mind, Steffen said.
"I'm not looking to help or hurt anybody," he said.
Does he think Ehrlich has been a good governor?
"All I know is, it's 2005 and we don't have slots here," Steffen said. As a Libertarian, he thinks government should play no role in regulating gambling; he wants casinos in Maryland, not just slots parlors, with government taking a cut of revenues through taxes.
He doesn't buy the argument that a Democratic-controlled legislature has blocked Ehrlich's agenda. Look at 1981, he said, when President Reagan pushed the biggest tax cut in U.S. history through a Democratic Congress. "It's leadership," he said.
An amateur actor, Steffen acknowledges he has a flair for the dramatic. He timed his interview, he said, to coincide with Halloween. What better time, he asks, for the Prince of Darkness to make his next appearance?
He said he has a rule: In life, as in theater, make a big entrance, and make a big exit.
"If I run for governor as a Libertarian, I'll have another exit," Steffen said, stubbing out a hand-rolled cigarette. "And it will be on my own terms."
Sun reporter Greg Barrett contributed to this article.