Firings under Ehrlich violated rights and Md. law, panel says

The Baltimore Sun

A legislative committee investigating the Ehrlich administration's personnel practices has concluded that workers were fired "based on political considerations in violation of constitutional rights and state law," and it is recommending stronger protections for state employees, according to a draft report provided yesterday to reporters.

"Some administration officials admitted, reluctantly, that political affiliation was a consideration in the decision-making process," says the 135-page report, the work of the bipartisan State Employee Rights and Protections Committee, which has been investigating Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr.'s staff since August 2005.

The legislative committee, whose work Republicans say is an election-year smear, does not recommend legal action in response to the firings. But committee lawyers determined that, unlike in past administrations, Ehrlich used the state appointments office - which traditionally makes political recommendations for membership to boards and commissions - as a clearinghouse for hiring and firing and that party affiliation was a likely factor.

The governor said yesterday that the committee's work over the past year is evidence of the Democratic-led General Assembly's misplaced priorities.

"They held more hearings on this particular issue than pedophiles, sex offenders and BGE combined ... all to conclude that our administration brought in people dedicated to carrying out the goals of this administration," Ehrlich said.

Taking office in January 2003 as Maryland's first Republican governor in more than three decades, Ehrlich promised to shake up agencies accustomed to Democratic administrations.

"We must overturn the status quo in state government and whenever possible bring in fresh blood, with new ideas," the governor wrote to a state agency head in a confidential memorandum reviewed by the commission.

Leading Democrats soon heard complaints of indiscriminate firings and the targeting of low-level employees, and they began the inquiry after revelations arose about the activities of a longtime aide to the governor, Joseph F. Steffen Jr.

The committee's four Republicans issued a separate 40-page rebuttal yesterday, criticizing Democrats for spending more than $1 million in taxpayer money on the investigation and accusing them of timing the report's release to potentially affect next month's gubernatorial election. Democrats dispute the cost estimate.

The minority report says that former workers who testified under oath "repeatedly misstated facts and failed to corroborate many aspects of their wrongful testimony with documents." It concludes that the committee did not find proof of "illegal personnel actions" by the Ehrlich administration.

Sen. J. Lowell Stoltzfus, the minority leader from the Eastern Shore and a committee member, acknowledged "stupid behavior" by some state workers who conducted firings. But he called the panel's work "a very expensive partisan joke."

"You can't legislate against crassness; you just can't do that," Stoltzfus said. "For the most part, this administration has bent over backward to incorporate the Democrats."

The report of the committee, which will meet Thursday in Annapolis to consider revisions, reserved particularly pointed language for Steffen, who left the administration in February 2005. Nicknamed "Prince of Darkness" by the governor, Steffen kept a grim reaper figurine on his desk. He told the committee that employee lists he was given included party affiliation.

"Mr. Steffen was placed on the executive floors at [the Department of Human Resources] and the [Department of Juvenile Services], on the payroll of the Governor's Office and coordinated with the Appointments Office to identify candidates for termination," the report says.

"Placing a qualified consultant in the agencies to perform such a function would have been reasonable. ... Placing Mr. Steffen in such a role was not and the purpose was most likely to identify candidates for termination for political reasons."

The committee sought to determine whether state workers in an employment category called "at will" were terminated because they were Democrats or to make room for Ehrlich loyalists. About 7,000 state workers are at-will, according to the report, and can legally be fired without cause, though not for political beliefs.

Sixty people contacted the committee to share their stories, the report said. Not all testified, however. Some of those who appeared before the panel did so voluntarily. Others, including Steffen, were subpoenaed.

The committee also heard from Ehrlich administration officials, including three - Steffen, Gregory J. Maddalone and Craig B. Chesek - who declined under oath to answer many questions about their roles in firing state workers or instructions they were given by the state appointments office. The committee has since filed lawsuits compelling them to testify.

The report indicated that Maddalone and Chesek - who were dispatched to state departments, much like Steffen, to target workers for firing - are due in court Oct. 26. Steffen is scheduled to appear Oct. 25.

Sen. Thomas M. Middleton, a Southern Maryland Democrat who co-chaired the committee, said their testimony is crucial in shaping the committee's final recommendations.

"The main players, it just seemed like they had extreme memory loss," Middleton said. "We haven't found anything that is illegal, but we found stories that were conflicting so that alone causes extreme suspicion."

The report noted that under Ehrlich, the methods used in firing workers were inconsistent across departments and perhaps most "dramatic" at the Public Service Commission, where several employees were escorted from the building by security guards and their photographs were posted in the lobby.

"There was substantial evidence that most of the terminated employees who testified were doing a good job, and there was no evidence that any of them posed any security risk," the report says.

Middleton said he expects the committee to offer legislation during the General Assembly session that begins in January.

The report recommended 10 changes, including that the law should make clear that state workers cannot be fired to make room for someone else based on the new employee's "political affiliation, belief or opinion."

State law must also be changed, the report says, to clarify that only people in the employing agency, not the appointments office, can fire a state worker.

The report also suggests that state employees should be notified in writing of their rights when hired and that the state should study the need for the at-will designation.

Sen. Brian E. Frosh, a Montgomery County Democrat who sits on the committee, said state workers, especially those who have served with distinction for many years, deserve better from their employer than they have received from Ehrlich.

jennifer.skalka@baltsun.com

Sun reporter Andrew A. Green contributed to this article.

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