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Ehrlich denies wholesale firings of Democrats

Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. dismissed yesterday mounting allegations that his administration has employed a roving band of loyalists to purge state agencies of Democrats deep in the bureaucracy, saying Democrats are upset that a personnel system they created is in the hands of the opposing party.

"When the party that was the monopoly loses, they're unhappy," said Ehrlich, the first Republican governor in 36 years.

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In a brief State House appearance before reporters and earlier in a radio interview, Ehrlich defended his hiring practices, saying he has sought only to replace high-ranking employees with policy-makers who share his ideology.

"Clearly we've gone in and tried to place the people with our program in positions of senior leadership," he said earlier yesterday on WBAL radio.

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The governor's defense came as Democratic lawmakers consider an investigation into personnel decisions and agency operations in the aftermath of Tuesday's forced resignation of a state employee and longtime Ehrlich associate, Joseph F. Steffen Jr.

Steffen acknowledged spreading Internet rumors about Mayor Martin O'Malley's marriage. State officials are examining whether he logged on during work hours from his desk. Steffen apologized for the incident to O'Malley in an e-mail.

Ehrlich has stopped short of apologizing but said on the radio yesterday, "Obviously, my heart, my brain, my words reflect regret for the incident. ... For any damage it caused, obviously everybody regrets it." He said he would "pull him [O'Malley] aside" the next time he sees him to tell that to the mayor.

During the past two years, Steffen had worked at several state agencies, where former employees said he generated fear as he gained access to personnel data and created lists of workers who would be fired.

Some lawmakers say the Ehrlich administration is reaching deeper into state agencies than is typical during a turnover of party control, firing relatively low-level workers to make room for replacements who would be more loyal to the governor.

Lawsuit over firing

A few days before Steffen left his job, the administration issued a $100,000 check to Baltimore County Councilman Vincent J. Gardina to settle a wrongful-termination lawsuit. Gardina had claimed he was fired from his job as a project manager at Maryland Environmental Service solely because he is a Democrat.

"This is not normal patronage," said Del. Peter Franchot, a Montgomery County Democrat. "This is ... having spies running around the agencies applying loyalty tests like something out of the Middle Ages, and reporting for termination people they didn't consider loyal enough.

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"The abuse is far and wide, and undeniable," he said. "It is completely unfair to the hard-working career employees who can suddenly not pay their mortgage, when they are doing a good job."

To answer those charges, the governor's appointments secretary, Lawrence J. Hogan Jr., called his first-ever news briefing yesterday. Hogan has overseen almost all hiring for the administration: A February 2003 memo from his office directed department heads to clear hires and terminations with him.

Hogan said the number of at-will positions in state government - those who serve at the pleasure of the governor - swelled under former Gov. Parris N. Glendening to 7,000 in the state's work force of 80,000. But, he said, only 284 state workers have been fired since the governor took office in January 2003.

"No one has ever been terminated by the Ehrlich administration for political reasons," Hogan said.

Worker complaints

Still, a number of former workers are complaining of treatment by several of Ehrlich's former congressional staffers at various agencies.

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Steffen had been an Ehrlich congressional office worker since the mid-1980s. After Ehrlich took office as governor, Steffen worked in the Departments of Juvenile Services and Human Resources, collecting personnel data and making lists of employees, before landing at the Maryland Insurance Administration, employees at those agencies said.

Alan Clark was fired from his $65,000-a-year position as an actuary with the Maryland Insurance Administration shortly after Steffen arrived there last year, but he said he does not recall ever meeting Steffen.

Clark said he was told his job was being eliminated for budget purposes shortly after he was called into a meeting with a supervisor and berated for "undermining the governor's agenda." He said he thinks he might have been singled out because he recommended against a rate increase in State Farm homeowners insurance rates.

"I am a registered independent. So I don't understand," Clark said. "I think they wanted my job, my position, my money."

Steffen's activities gained the most attention this week because of the O'Malley rumors. Ehrlich said he fired Steffen after finding out about the postings and called him a "rogue operation."

"I gotta tell ya, he wasn't exactly high up on the food chain here," Ehrlich said on the radio yesterday.

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Controversial figure

Another controversial figure is Craig Chesek, a former Ehrlich district staffer. He has worked in the state Department of Natural Resources and the state Public Service Commission, agencies where many workers have been fired despite solid qualifications and long service. Several workers at the PSC have filed lawsuits, saying they were improperly terminated.

Chesek declined an interview when contacted yesterday, saying he had been told by Ehrlich not to speak to a Sun reporter. "I recognize the directives of the governor," he said.

Chesek worked with Steffen in Ehrlich's Lutherville office in the 1990s, said Del. J.B. Jennings, a Republican who represents Baltimore and Harford counties. He also was an Ehrlich aide.

At the Public Service Commission, Chesek advised commission chief Kenneth D. Schisler on personnel moves.

On his own, Schisler fired five employees last year, but the workers sued, saying that Schisler had overstepped his authority because he did not have the agreement of other commission members. A judge has overturned some of the firings.

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In a deposition in one of the employment cases, Schisler said he "consulted" with Chesek on "how you get the agency to click" and on "personnel attribute[s]."

Unionized employees also are concerned.

The governor's budget eliminated 134 filled positions as of June 30. Sue Esty, a lobbyist for the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, has asked some of those workers to go to Annapolis to protest.

They have refused, she said, because "they've been told if you speak out, you'll be fired sooner."

"To be fired and to still be afraid to speak out is a clear indication of what has to amount to a reign of terror," Esty said.

Sun staff writer Ivan Penn contributed to this article.


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