Gov. Martin O'Malley's administration has fired 78 employees since he took office, and nearly 300 others have left state government through retirement or resignation since he was inaugurated, according to figures his office released yesterday.
It is unclear how that total compares with the 340 firings Democrats attributed to Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. during his term. The O'Malley administration did not say how many of the resignations and retirements were voluntary and how many were forced - making it difficult to compare O'Malley's personnel practices with those that launched a yearlong investigation into his predecessor.
The turnover has revived a debate over how many state positions should be deemed political in nature, and how far into the bureaucracy a new governor should reach to remake state government.
Democrats assailed Ehrlich, a Republican, alleging that his administration targeted midlevel staffers because of their political leanings. But Republicans charge that O'Malley, a Democrat, is engaged in an identical housecleaning of state agencies.
"In six months, they've gotten rid of as many people as Ehrlich was criticized for in four years," said Republican Sen. David R. Brinkley, the minority leader from Frederick County, who requested the data.
However, O'Malley spokesman Steve Kearney said the appropriate figures to compare are the firings, because the Ehrlich administration figures do not count resignations and retirements. He said the current administration's data show that most of the 78 firings - 42 of them - were in the offices of the governor and lieutenant governor, not in midlevel positions.
"We've tried to be fair with state employees, and I think that's borne out by the fact that there have been just 36 people outside the governor's office terminated during the first five months of this administration," Kearney said.
Ehrlich spokesman Henry Fawell, who pegged the number of Ehrlich administration firings at 284 over four years, said he doesn't expect many of the O'Malley-era resignations were voluntary.
"To have a brain drain of nearly 400 people in just six months is astounding. ... If the General Assembly has one shred of credibility left, they will investigate this," Fawell said, adding, "That's the biggest 'if' possible. I'm not holding my breath."
Republican criticism of O'Malley's personnel practices intensified last week when an administrative judge ruled that Transportation Secretary John D. Porcari illegally fired Gregory Maddalone, a former ice dancer who was a central figure in the probe of Ehrlich's firings. Republicans have also circulated lists of 38 people they say were fired by O'Malley, including a cancer patient and a pregnant woman.
Questions about the Ehrlich administration's personnel practices arose from the release of e-mails to and from Joseph F. Steffen Jr., a longtime Ehrlich staffer known as "the Prince of Darkness." He later testified that he was dispatched to state agencies to look for people to fire who could then be replaced by administration loyalists.
Over more than a year, the Democrats hired an outside counsel, appointed an investigative committee and issued subpoenas for Steffen and others accused of similar tactics, including Maddalone.
The committee released a highly critical report claiming Ehrlich fired people for political reasons, and the Democrat-led General Assembly considered legislation to prevent future abuses. However, with O'Malley in office, the legislature did not reduce the 7,000 positions subject to at-will firings by the governor and enacted what critics called tepid reforms.
Maryland Republican Party Chairman Jim Pelura said he has no problem with the notion that a new governor should be able to bring in his own people. The issue, he said, is the "brouhaha" over Ehrlich's practices - and the lack of outcry over O'Malley's.
"It's kind of humorous when you see the double standards applied," Pelura said. "Bob Ehrlich's firing of the 300 or whatever should not have been a story to begin with, and it is unconscionable that they spent taxpayer dollars investigating such a nonstory."
Sen. Brian E. Frosh, a Montgomery County Democrat who served on the personnel investigation committee, said it's a mistake to add together O'Malley's firings with the resignations and retirements and try to compare them to what Ehrlich did. He said the committee received reports that Ehrlich officials promised employees neutral recommendations if they would resign rather than be fired but that the Republican administration would not provide the committee with data on how many times that happened.
"Nobody begrudged them the right to fire secretaries and deputy secretaries, the folks who make policy like in the office of the governor," Frosh said. "But they, according to Joe Steffen, were reaching down looking for file clerks and secretaries to fire to reward Republican loyalists. I don't think that can be said of the O'Malley administration. They just haven't fired that many."
The O'Malley administration figures were released in response to a May 29 request by Brinkley. Budget and Management Secretary T. Eloise Foster wrote to Brinkley that she treated his letter as a request under Maryland's Public Information Act.
The Sun requested identical information May 2, but O'Malley administration officials declined to provide it, saying the request was not subject to disclosure under the act.
According to the letter, the departments that saw the most firings, resignations and retirements were Transportation with 33, Business and Economic Development with 24 and Health and Mental Hygiene with 18.
Many of the employee separations came in departments that do not report directly to the governor, including the Department of Education, the comptroller's office and the attorney general's office. Collectively, those agencies count for 88 of the 375 who left the state government.
"The governor just asked his Cabinet secretaries to hire the most competent people possible to make government work again," Kearney said. "There has been no centralized operation. The Cabinet secretaries have hired their staff based on who's best able to complete the mission, and that's what they will continue to do."