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GOP accuses O'Malley of hypocrisy

The Baltimore Sun

Gov. Martin O'Malley is under fire from Republicans who say he is doing exactly what Democrats spent a year investigating his predecessor for: firing mid-level state employees for political reasons.

An administrative law judge ruled this week that Gregory J. Maddalone - himself a key figure in the personnel probe of Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr.'s administration - was fired illegally. Republicans say his case and others prove that the new administration was just as systematic in its efforts to rid the state ranks of GOP appointees as Ehrlich was accused of being toward Democrats.

O'Malley has denied that his personnel moves are motivated by politics, saying he is making changes to ensure the quality of the state work force.

The Sun has made repeated requests over six weeks to the O'Malley administration to release figures detailing the number of employees that have been fired since the governor took office in January. It has refused to provide them.

"Ehrlich did what previous Democrat governors did, and I think O'Malley is doing the same thing," said Sen. J. Lowell Stoltzfus, an Eastern Shore Republican who sat on a General Assembly committee that investigated Ehrlich. "It's business as usual for all of them. The only thing is the Democrats tried to use [Ehrlich's firings] for political purposes. It was pure politics, and I think this demonstrates that."

O'Malley spokesman Rick Abbruzzese said the issue with Ehrlich's personnel practices was not just the people he fired, but also that he hired replacements whose primary qualifications were political.

Democrats have lampooned Ehrlich's hiring of Maddalone as the case in point. He was an Ehrlich loyalist, but he lacked a college degree and his primary professional experience was as an ice dancer. When he was fired, he was an administrator in the Department of Transportation's Office of Engineering, Procurement and Emergency Services, which handles homeland security issues.

"The governor when he ran for office made a commitment to the people of the state to make government work again," Abbruzzese said. "You do that by bringing in professional, competent administrators, allowing your Cabinet secretaries to appoint their people." He said the administration is reviewing the decision in the Maddalone case and has not yet decided whether to appeal.

Ehrlich spokesman Henry Fawell defended the Republican administration's record. Rather than eliminating Democrats from government, Ehrlich hired several of them for posts in his Cabinet, Fawell said.

"We never had a judge rule that we fired somebody illegally for their political beliefs, unlike the current administration," Fawell said. (One prominent case involving the firing of a Democratic Baltimore County councilman from his job at Maryland Environmental Service was settled out of court.)

The back-and-forth is in part a product of how unaccustomed Annapolis is to changes in partisan power. Although Maryland's governors haven't always seen eye-to-eye with their predecessors, Ehrlich's election marked the first time control of the governor's mansion had switched parties since 1969.

State law gives the governor broad powers to hire and fire about 7,000 employees at will, a group that includes many mid-level workers with no policymaking or political role. Until Ehrlich took over, there was no model for how deeply into the bureaucracy personnel changes might reach under a new regime.

Republicans generally say that they wouldn't object at all to O'Malley's actions if the Democrats hadn't made such political hay when Ehrlich did the same thing. "The sheer hypocrisy of single-party dominance is what makes it so distasteful," said Del. Anthony J. O'Donnell, the minority leader from Southern Maryland.

But Democrats argue there is a difference between what Ehrlich did and what O'Malley is doing.

Del. Adrienne A. Jones, the speaker pro tempore and co-chair of the personnel investigation committee, said Ehrlich used his appointments office - and a group of political operatives - to find people in state agencies to fire so they could be replaced by administration loyalists, whereas O'Malley's personnel changes have been conducted by agency heads through the normal course of business.

Under Ehrlich, Jones said, "you had certain persons who were sent specifically to the state offices in which they were actually using intimidation tactics" to get rid of veteran state workers. "That is the difference."

The most famous of the Ehrlich officials sent to state agencies to find workers to fire was Joseph F. Steffen Jr., a longtime aide who said the governor had dubbed him "the Prince of Darkness." It was the release of Steffen's e-mails that sparked the Democrats' probe, but others - including Maddalone - were accused of doing the same thing.

According to a copy of Administrative Law Judge Susan A. Sinrod's decision in the Maddalone case, Maddalone denies that he was sent to state agencies to find people to fire.

Neither Maddalone nor his attorney responded to phone messages this week. Administrative judges' rulings in termination appeals are considered personnel records and not subject to public disclosure. But a copy of the Maddalone ruling has been posted on an anti-O'Malley Web site, www.omalleywatch.com.

The decision was first reported yesterday by The Examiner.

Maddalone testified to the legislature's personnel committee in 2006 that he helped facilitate five firings at the Maryland Transportation Authority. When presented with testimony about Maddalone's own firing, though, Sinrod concluded that Transportation Secretary John D. Porcari could have had no reason for the termination other than politics.

According to the ruling, Porcari took office Jan. 17, decided to fire Maddalone on Jan. 19 and met him for the first time Jan. 23. Porcari testified that he had not seen Maddalone's performance evaluations or resume but had read news reports about his political role in the Ehrlich administration and his career as an ice dancer.

"The only knowledge Secretary Porcari had of the employee was through politics and the media, and the employee's politics were clearly conflicting to Secretary Porcari and that of the new governor's administration," Sinrod wrote. "The employee was in a mid-level, non-policy making position, and based on the applicable case law, it was unconstitutional for Secretary Porcari to terminate him for that reason."

No one was hired to fill Maddalone's place; O'Malley administration officials say they transferred the budgeted position to another office within the Transportation Department. Sinrod awarded Maddalone back pay and ordered that he be reinstated.

Democrats say the way Ehrlich went about purging the state work force set him apart. Their investigation found instances in which mid-level bureaucrats with long records of service were abruptly fired and marched out of their offices by security guards, with their pictures posted in the lobby to prevent their return.

"There is a dramatic difference in tone" with O'Malley, said Sen. Brian E. Frosh, a Montgomery County Democrat who sat on the personnel committee. "He doesn't have a guy who calls himself the Prince of Darkness who takes delight in firing people and who is searching for, as he put it, file clerks and secretaries to fire to fill their jobs with Republican loyalists."

But former Ehrlich administration officials say there have been cases in which O'Malley firings have seemed cruel, including one in which a contract employee with the state police and the university system was fired while being treated for cancer and another in which a Department of Disabilities worker was fired - and lost her health insurance - when she was five months pregnant.

andy.green@baltsun.com

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