Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr.'s communications chief wanted press offices in the Maryland Insurance Administration and other state departments to operate like an extension of the governor's re-election committee, a former agency spokeswoman testified yesterday to a legislative committee examining Ehrlich's firing practices.
"You are the re-election committee," Debbie Rosen McKerrow said she was told by top gubernatorial aide Paul E. Schurick during an October 2003 State House meeting. "'Everything we do from this point forward is for the re-election of the governor.' ... We were told that we were to be part of the branding of the Ehrlich administration."
McKerrow, a former insurance administration spokeswoman, was one of three former workers to testify yesterday before a committee examining whether state employees were fired by the Ehrlich administration for political reasons.
With partisan politics infusing the proceedings for months, Ehrlich supporters have insisted that the investigation is an election-year stunt designed to smear the Republican governor. Democrats seem in no rush to complete the inquiry, asserting that the hearings provide a vital examination of the state's personnel laws.
Matthew A. Crenson, a Johns Hopkins University political science professor, said that governors often use departments to promote accomplishments, but that McKerrow's remarks illustrate an administration in campaign mode from its earliest days.
"To incorporate the public information officers into the partisan political campaigning is a step over the line," Crenson said. Committee members voted yesterday to adjourn for more than a month, scheduling the next meetings in March to hear three full days' worth of testimony from former state workers as well as former and current administration officials. The delay pushes the committee's work deeper into the General Assembly session and an election year and beyond a first deadline for submitting legislation that could revise the state's personnel policies.
It also gives committee staffers more time to wrangle with the administration over documents that the administration says should be withheld because of executive privilege.
Schurick said McKerrow, who ran last year for Annapolis alderman as a Democrat, was fired in May 2004 because the administration was not happy with her performance. He said her recollection about what he had said at the State House meeting of public information officers was wrong.
"If she said that, she lied under oath," Schurick said. "I don't believe that. I never said it."
But another former insurance administration official, Tori Leonard, said she attended the meeting, where pizza and beer were served, and agreed with McKerrow's recollection. "Our directive was to highlight the accomplishments of the administration in a way that would bolster the governor's re-election effort," said Leonard, who said she is a registered Republican.
McKerrow, 57, said she had received positive reviews since being hired in December 2000, and that even when she was fired she was told by Maryland Insurance Commissioner Alfred W. Redmer Jr. that her performance was "exemplary" but that "they were going in another direction."
McKerrow was replaced the next day by Joseph F. Steffen Jr., a longtime aide to Ehrlich who has said that he was placed in various state agencies to target particular workers for firing so that individuals who were loyal to the governor could be hired.
Ward B. Coe III, an attorney for the committee, submitted an e-mail yesterday to the committee from Steffen to Steven L. Kreseski, the governor's former chief of staff, confirming that top Ehrlich aides wanted Steffen in McKerrow's job. In a message to former Ehrlich chief of staff Steven L. Kreseski, Steffen says that Schurick and Greg Massoni, Ehrlich's press secretary, favored placing him at the insurance office, or MIA.
Schurick said he didn't remember if he signed off on Steffen's move. "I doubt it, I don't know," he said.
McKerrow told the committee she was escorted out of the building following her termination meeting and collected unemployment for 26 weeks. She and her husband, a former Sun employee, now work for a company that assists people in settling estates.
Even though she had been hired under the previous administration, McKerrow she had planned to stay on and work hard for Ehrlich. "I was part of the team, and that was my job," she said.
Also testifying yesterday was Aletha Susan Fernandez, a former deputy secretary at the Department of Human Resources, who said she was fired from two different state jobs within a year.
In January 2003, the month that Ehrlich was sworn in, Fernandez said, she received a fax at work from the Ehrlich transition office. She said the cover sheet read: "We know where you are."
The fax included an invitation to a fundraiser for former Lt. Gov. Kathleen Kennedy Townsend, the Democrat who ran for governor against Ehrlich. Fernandez was listed as a member of the event's house party committee.
"They wanted me to know they knew I was there," she told the committee.
Less than two weeks later, Fernandez said, a man in a gray trenchcoat handed her a termination letter.
By February, however, she moved to the Department of Juvenile Services. That December, Steffen moved in to the office next to hers, where he placed a Grim Reaper statue on his desk, she said.
Rumors abounded about the reason he was there.
While home recuperating from eye surgery, Fernandez received a call from Juvenile Services Secretary Kenneth C. Montague Jr. who told her that "things have changed, you don't need to come back."
"I thought he was joking," said Fernandez, who holds a law degree from Georgetown University.
Sen. J. Lowell Stoltzfus, an Eastern Shore Republican, said that Fernandez didn't provide concrete proof of what happened, calling the testimony "hearsay." But Sen. Brian E. Frosh, a Montgomery County Democrat and a lawyer, said cases are often decided on circumstantial evidence.
Alan Clark, a former 10-year insurance administration actuary, testified yesterday that he was fired after concluding that some state-set insurance were "excessive." After Ehrlich took office, he said he began hearing from supervisors that "the governor isn't happy with your work."
As a reprimand for one disagreement over a company's rate request, he was instructed to stuff envelopes. He said he subsequently received a letter from Redmer thanking him for the chore.
"Basically I got the message: Be a good soldier," Clark said.
Clark was fired June 23, 2004, a week before he was to have received a pay raise. He, too, was escorted out of the building.