Joseph F. Steffen Jr. - known in political circles as the "Prince of Darkness" - shed light yesterday on his role in the firing of state employees, asserting that he teamed with the governor's appointments office in targeting workers to be terminated and that their political affiliations informed his recommendations.
Though frank at turns about the bravado that prompted his behavior, Steffen, 47, refused to answer many questions about his recent employment and whereabouts. His obstinance prompted the committee of lawmakers who heard Steffen's sworn testimony to vote unanimously to go to court to compel him to respond to their inquiries.
Several committee members said Steffen's testimony appeared to differ from previous sworn remarks made by Ehrlich appointments secretary Lawrence J. Hogan Jr. Some lawmakers said after the hearing that they are considering asking the Anne Arundel County state's attorney's office to review the discrepancies for possible criminal violations. Steffen said that while he was a state worker, he and Hogan met regularly to discuss personnel decisions. Hogan told the committee in May that he never asked Steffen for recommendations about possible firings. If either lied under oath, he could face misdemeanor perjury charges and up to 10 years in prison.
Democratic General Assembly leaders formed a select committee to investigate the personnel practices of Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. in June 2005 - several months after Steffen's activities in state government came to light - and have since awaited his testimony.
Some Democrats contend Steffen was one of several state workers assigned to various agencies to purge them of Democratic loyalists and make room for the governor's supporters. The lawmakers allege that the administration reached deeper than necessary into state agencies to put its own stamp on state operations and disposed of untold decades of employee experience by forcing out workers solely because they were Democrats.
Republicans counter that as the first Republican governor in decades, Ehrlich came into office with a mandate to reshape state operations. The governor has done little different from past Democratic administrations, they say.
It was the most public appearance by Steffen in at least a year, after he was cast aside by the Ehrlich administration for spreading rumors online about the governor's chief political rival, Baltimore Mayor Martin O'Malley. Steffen had worked for Ehrlich for years, and the governor accepted Steffen's resignation - or fired him, depending on who is recounting the events - in February 2005 after that disclosure.
But fresh questions arose yesterday about just how clean the break was. Steffen acknowledged during questioning that he had dinner with Ehrlich communications director Paul E. Schurick, a top aide to the governor, as recently as January, when the General Assembly session was getting under way. Steffen also said he and Schurick had spoken on the phone twice since he left state government.
"He was just checking up to see how I was," Steffen said.
Sen. Brian E. Frosh, a Montgomery County Democrat, said he believes that the Ehrlich administration did not want Steffen to testify. "I think what Mr. Schurick was saying to Mr. Steffen was 'Shut up, we'll take care of you,'" he said.
Schurick told reporters he has not spoken with Steffen since January. "I am 100 percent certain that no one from this office tried to influence him in any way in advance of his appearance today," he said. "Period. It did not happen."
Since Steffen's departure, the administration has played down his influence. Ehrlich officials have called him a rogue operator, and Schurick once said Steffen was "irrelevant to our world."
But Steffen described his efforts yesterday as more crucial to the administration, though he said he did not have the authority on his own to fire state workers. He said that he participated regularly in Ehrlich staff meetings and that during the better part of his state service, he met with Hogan and Deputy Appointments Secretary Diane Baker one to three times a month.
Steffen said appointments office officials also provided him with lists of at-will employees - those who can be fired without cause - and advised: "If these people are at will and you don't think they're doing a good job, let us know."
Hogan gave a different account when he appeared before the committee May 22, some committee members have concluded. "The impression was given that he was sent there by the appointments office and/or by me to, to specifically terminate people and recommend - that's absolutely false," he said, according to a transcript of Hogan's testimony provided by Ward B. Coe III, attorney to the legislative committee. "Nothing of the kind ever occurred."
But Coe gave the committee a June 24, 2004, e-mail from Steffen to Ehrlich speech writer Richard Cross in which Steffen says Hogan is looking for people who could be terminated. He uses the term "outs" to describe firings.
"I am unofficially looking for 'OUTS!' to be made (per Hogan's request)," Steffen wrote. He did not dispute the authenticity of the e-mail yesterday.
Through an Ehrlich spokesman, Hogan declined to comment yesterday.
In the hearing, Steffen acknowledged that he recommended at least 11 workers to be fired during his time at three agencies: the Department of Human Resources, the Maryland Insurance Administration and the Department of Juvenile Services. In most cases, he was unable to remember the specific reasons those people deserved to lose their jobs. He said he did not have access to personnel files, meaning that performance reviews never factored into his decisions.
Party affiliation was initially taken into consideration, Steffen said.
Coe told the committee that during a November meeting with Steffen, the former Ehrlich aide said he had seen lists of state workers identified by their party affiliation. Yesterday, Steffen said he had not seen such lists but that he used what he had heard about workers' allegiances to guide his recommendations.
Steffen's stories also differed yesterday with regard to Melinda O'Malley, the sister-in-law of the Baltimore mayor and an assistant attorney general assigned to the Maryland Insurance Administration. Coe said that during that November session, Steffen told him Melinda O'Malley was identified for firing.
But yesterday, Steffen made no such claim. "I mentioned Melinda O'Malley's name strictly because she was on maternity leave, and I knew as such she couldn't be terminated," Steffen said to the committee. " ... There was never a move to get Mindy out of there."
Steffen declined to answer a variety of questions, including whether administration officials helped push rumors about Martin O'Malley's private life and the nature of his meeting with Schurick.
Several lawmakers told Steffen they felt he had wronged state workers. "It really appears that you earned your title, 'Prince of Darkness,'" said Democratic Sen. Thomas M. Middleton, the committee's co-chair.
Before landing a press position with the National Political Action Committee in 1982, Steffen was a paper saw operator, and worked in the billing department of a shipping company and in the auditing shop of a Baltimore insurance broker. He worked on several Ehrlich campaigns and took a paid district office position after Ehrlich was elected to Congress in 1994.
When Ehrlich became governor, Steffen, now working on a Harford County campaign, moved to the transition team and then Ehrlich's finance office.
Steffen's jobs at human resources and other state agencies brought perks, including an office on the executive level just a few doors down from department heads. He perched his favorite figurines - the grim reaper and Darth Vader, among them - on his desk for all to see. "What was it you were trying to perpetuate? How would you describe the myth?" Frosh asked Steffen yesterday, referring to the statues.
"Someone a little on edge," said Steffen, who rubbed his right eye repeatedly throughout the five-hour hearing.
"When you say someone who was on edge, what do you mean?" Frosh asked.
"A little out of the mainstream," Steffen said.
"Tough?" Frosh asked.
"I think to a degree," Steffen replied.
"Hard-nosed?" Frosh asked.
"To a degree," Steffen said.
"Somebody not afraid to make recommendations that someone be fired, for example?" Frosh asked.
"Right," Steffen agreed. "I don't think that's a job everyone would be willing to do."
Exposed in February 2005 for posting Internet messages about Baltimore Mayor Martin O'Malley's personal life, Joseph F. Steffen Jr., who had worked for Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. for decades, resigned from state government. In June 2005, Democratic lawmakers created a committee to investigate whether low-level state employees were targeted for firing because of their political affiliation, and whether the workers were identified by Steffen and others like him. After being unavailable for months, Steffen testified yesterday but declined to answer many questions.
Committee members are seeking a court order requiring Steffen to answer more questions.
Appointments Secretary Lawrence J. Hogan Jr. discussing Joseph F. Steffen Jr. during May 22 testimony to legislative committee investigating Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr.'s personnel practices:
"I never asked him to terminate. I never asked him for recommendations. ... Was he sent there for that reason? Absolutely not."
"The impression was given that he was sent there by the Appointments Office and/or by me to, to specifically terminate people and recommend -- that's absolutely false. ... Nothing of the kind ever occurred."
Steffen, former aide to Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., June 24 e-mail to Richard Cross, Ehrlich speechwriter:
"I am unofficially looking for 'OUTS!' To be made (per Hogan's request)."
Steffen testimony yesterday to legislative committee investigating Ehrlich's personnel practices:
"With the appointments office, it was - 'If these people are at will and you don't think they're doing a good job, let us know.'"