Ehrlich inquiry may dog O'Malley

The Baltimore Sun

In addition to controlling $29 billion in spending and dominating the airwaves with his agenda, Maryland's governor has another powerful tool at his disposal: the ability to hand out patronage positions.

More than 6,000 state employees - about 10 percent of the state government work force - can be fired at any time and for any reason. Generations of governors have rewarded allies and friends by giving them good-paying state jobs with decent benefits.

But when Democrat Martin O'Malley takes office Wednesday, the scope of his hirings for those positions could be hindered by the legislature's yearlong investigation into the personnel practices of his Republican predecessor.

Democratic lawmakers labored to prove, during hours of meetings conducted by a prominent Baltimore attorney, that Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. had illegally fired state workers for political reasons.

The investigation started in the summer of 2005, prompted by the activities of Joseph F. Steffen Jr., a longtime Ehrlich political aide who had been dispatched to state agencies to fire workers. Nicknamed "Prince of Darkness," Steffen kept a statue of the Grim Reaper on his desk.

As the first Republican governor in more than three decades, Ehrlich came into office on a promise that he would bring fresh ideas to government, in part by clearing out legions of Democrats who he said had grown too comfortable in their jobs. But regime change soon turned ugly.

Some former Maryland employees testified under oath that Steffen, who had no human resources experience, and other unqualified Ehrlich loyalists struck fear among employees and targeted workers for firings. Others said that they were dismissed without reason, escorted from their buildings by armed guards. And a few said they believed their Democratic activities outside work led to their termination.

Ehrlich's team maintained throughout that the governor had the right to fire - without cause - those employees who fell within the at-will category. The process ended without a finding of illegal activity and nothing was forwarded to prosecutors for action.

As a result of the brouhaha, some Democrats, who are also embarking this session on a legislative effort to bolster protections for state personnel, say O'Malley must be cautious.

"I don't sense that there's a desire to just get rid of people," said Montgomery County Del. Kumar P. Barve, the House majority leader. "I think this governor is looking at resumes and experience. My impression is O'Malley is being very deliberative."

But the Republicans, who have called the Ehrlich investigation a "witch hunt," say they'll keep an eye on the new governor's hires and fires. Any widespread dismissals could be perceived as hypocritical, they said.

"There's no doubt that we're all going to be watching," said Sen. Allan H. Kittleman, the minority whip.

O'Malley is busy forming his Cabinet but is expected to turn his attention in time to those at-will positions.

"The governor-elect has made it very clear to me that he wants to protect the rights of state employees, that he wants decisions to be made in a fair, equitable and legal manner, and I'm going to carry out my responsibilities under that direction," said Jeanne Hitchcock, O'Malley's secretary-designee of appointments. "We will be looking at at-will positions absolutely, and the manner in which those positions are reviewed is no different from how every state employee will be treated."

Meanwhile, lawmakers are trying to show that the review of Ehrlich's personnel practices produced meaningful reform and did not just contribute to a political victory for Democrats in November.

Sen. Thomas M. Middleton, the Charles County Democrat who co-chaired the investigation, has filed a bill in the Senate, and his committee co-chairwoman, Del. Adrienne A. Jones, is expected to submit the same bill in the House.

The proposal addresses a category of at-will employees called special appointments, who number 3,983, or nearly two-thirds of all at-will workers, according to the final report of the committee. The proposal specifies that those positions should be divided into two categories: one for jobs that "must be filled without regard to political affiliation, belief, or opinion, " and another that allows those matters to be considered as much as federal case law permits.

A new governor, Middleton said, "should be able to fire somebody who was involved in his opponent's campaign. [He] should have the right to fire them for political reasons."

The proposal says, however, that special appointees and management-level appointees (who number 1,869) cannot be fired to make room for someone else because of that person's political beliefs or affiliation. It also requires that a worker who falls into either category be notified in writing of the reasons for his or her termination.

Some lawmakers believe there are far too many at-will workers in Maryland and that the General Assembly should consider legislation to shrink that number. Middleton's bill requires further study of all at-will positions and asks that the Department of Legislative Services report its findings by the end of this calendar year.

Montgomery County Democratic Sen. Brian E. Frosh said he would like to see the number of at-will workers reduced to fewer than 1,000.

"He doesn't need 6,000 at-will employees," Frosh said of the governor.

Other bills are in draft or discussion stages. One would propose a sharp decrease in the number of at-will employees, though specifics are being worked out. Another would clarify who the appointing authority is, an effort to prevent run-of-the-mill hirings - or firings - from being conducted by the governor's appointments office, which traditionally handles political jobs.

Republican Sen. J. Lowell Stoltzfus, who sat on the legislative committee investigating Ehrlich's personnel practices, said he believes that no matter their party affiliation, governors have a right to hire employees who will be loyal to them and promote their agenda. He felt that way, he said, when Ehrlich was in charge, and he believes that O'Malley has that same right.

"The system has worked, and it was pure politics before, and I'm not going to continue that mistake of political second-guessing and opportunism," Stoltzfus said. "It cheapens government to get involved in these squabbles."

Kittleman said that he is not sure Middleton's proposal is necessary but that he would review it further before deciding if he will support it.

"I wonder if it's really a solution looking for a problem," he said. "I'm not sure we've really found it is a problem."

jennifer.skalka@baltsun.com

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