The Ehrlich administration systematically got rid of state employees believed to be politically or personally disloyal to the governor, according to testimony yesterday from a former employee of the Maryland Department of Human Resources.
For months, Democrats alleged that the governor reached deeper than necessary into state agencies to replace rank-and-file workers with devoted Republicans. Yesterday, Thomas Burgess was the first sworn witness to appear before a special committee investigating the governor's personnel practices to give his account of some of those firings.
In a sometimes emotional two-hour session, Burgess recounted a number of employee terminations in the human resources department that he said had nothing to do with the workers' performances but were demanded by administration officials. He said there were more than 50 forced separations within the department after January 2003.
"The intention here was to be able to remove individuals so that supportive Republicans could be placed into office," said Burgess, who left his job as director of human resource development and training in February 2004 after almost 15 years of employment with the state.
A spokesman for Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. immediately disputed the claims yesterday and said the administration "always has and always will follow the personnel laws in the state of Maryland."
Burgess, 50, testified that Michelle Lane, who worked for the department as a liaison to the governor's office, recorded names of workers to be fired on what was known as a "Death List."
He said that Joseph F. Steffen Jr., who moved to the department to succeed Lane, kept a Darth Vader figurine next to a Grim Reaper statuette on his desk. Steffen's presence was intimidating to department workers, he said.
Burgess, who said he is a registered Republican, stated he was notified in December 2003, on his 24th wedding anniversary, that he was to be fired. He said department Secretary Christopher J. McCabe told him he was being let go because he had recommended a colleague for promotion who was a Democrat and because administration officials didn't think he could be trusted.
In an interview yesterday, Steffen confirmed that Burgess was targeted. "He was someone that we looked at, yes," he said. "When I say 'we,' I mean the governor's appointments office."
Burgess was a surprise witness. He offered to testify voluntarily and signed a waiver turning his personnel records over to the committee for review.
The committee had subpoenaed two other witnesses who were expected to appear yesterday but were postponed until the committee's next meeting Tuesday. Sources say they are George "Skip" Casey, a former director of human resources at the Department of Transportation, and Paula M. Carmody, a former attorney in the Office of the People's Counsel.
After its closed-session meeting, the committee voted to subpoena a third unnamed witness.
The special committee is investigating whether Ehrlich's team fired several at-will workers - who total about 7,000 and can be terminated without cause - for their political beliefs.
In addition to shining light on Steffen's role, Burgess also revealed a bit about the responsibilities of Lane, who officially signed on as a special assistant to the secretary of the Department of Human Resources in January 2003 but was responsible for communications between the department and the governor's office.
"She was perceived to be a spy," Burgess said.
Like Steffen, Lane targeted workers for termination, and it was Lane who kept the "Death List," which carried the designation "DL" for short, Burgess said. Burgess also mentioned that several at-will department employees received letters from then-appointments secretary designee Lawrence J. Hogan Jr., before Ehrlich was sworn in and Hogan officially took office, notifying the workers of the intention to replace them. Most were fired.
Burgess told the committee that the hiring authority - a department head, for example - is the only one with the legal power to fire state workers, and that the administration's direct involvement in the firing of at-will employees was illegal.
The governor's office said after his testimony that Burgess provided no proof that any laws or employee rights were violated, and a spokesman noted a 1996 state attorney general ruling that he said proves the governor's authority trumps that of his Cabinet secretaries.
"Once again, not a single piece of information provided today justifies the outrageous accusation that the administration acted illegally," said Henry Fawell, Ehrlich's spokesman. "There's a total disconnect between these wild accusations and the committee's failure to back them up. The administration always has and always will follow the personnel laws in the state of Maryland."
Instead of leaving the state Department of Human Resources, Burgess, who had a daughter in college and a new mortgage, took a five-grade demotion to employee relations officer at the Department of Health and Mental Hygiene. A resident of Catonsville, he stayed in that job for two months and then moved to the Baltimore City Department of Public Works as chief of personnel.
He confirmed to the committee that he has donated a small amount of money to Democrat Martin O'Malley's campaign for governor, but that it was later returned. He said he also gave small gifts to the Democrats' 2002 candidate for governor, Kathleen Kennedy Townsend, as well as the Republican National Committee.
Each committee member was allowed three minutes to question Burgess, a rule that frustrated Senate Minority Leader J. Lowell Stoltzfus.
"I'm going to have to consider if I'm going to be part of this process," Lowell said, before later deciding to stay.
"I think this situation today speaks for itself. I think it's an atrocious way to look at the problem," he said.
Sen. Brian E. Frosh, a Montgomery County Democrat, said Burgess' testimony provided a "very revealing window into the workings of the administration."
"How do we recruit and retain an effective work force?" Frosh said. "You don't do that by terrifying people."
Transportation Secretary Robert L. Flanagan attended the session to hear what the former DOT employee Casey, who didn't testify, would say. Flanagan told reporters he was disappointed to see the committee's hearings, which began over the summer, drag on.
"I think this is, at best, distraction; at worst, micro-management," Flanagan said.