Steele complains of bias in firings-probe panel

Sun Staff

Lt. Gov. Michael S. Steele said yesterday that if legislators the governor considers biased serve on a panel investigating his firing practices, the administration won't cooperate with the panel.

Steele spoke on the WBAL-AM Stateline program, where a week ago Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. promised to "take down" legislators who questioned his personnel practices.

Steele said yesterday that some lawmakers on the 12-member committee have accused the governor of wrongdoing before hearing the evidence and must not serve.

"If these members of the committee who are currently designated to serve but have also expressed beforehand ... their biases in this investigation that's supposed to take place this fall, I don't think the governor's operation is prepared to play," Steele said. "Why would we participate in a show trial, something designed to embarrass the governor?" he added.

Democrats say the investigation is necessary because they have heard complaints from longtime, midlevel state employees who say they were fired by the Ehrlich administration and replaced by political loyalists. Administration officials have said their firings were proper and that they terminated relatively few employees.

Steele's comments come a day after the governor's office released two new letters in a series of correspondence between Ehrlich legal counsel Jervis S. Finney and state Sen. Brian E. Frosh, a Montgomery County Democrat named to the panel who has been critical of the governor's firing practices.

In a letter sent Friday, Finney demanded that Frosh step down from the panel, saying the senator cannot be objective after commenting in the media that he believes the administration has committed wrongdoing. Frosh said Friday that he would not step down. In a letter from Frosh to Finney, also released by the governor Friday, the senator cited examples of firings he believed were improper but said he would be willing to change his mind if the administration presented convincing evidence to the contrary.

Steele mentioned Frosh by name yesterday, as well as state Sen. Paula C. Hollinger, a Baltimore County Democrat who has also been assigned to the panel.

"It applies to anyone who decided to run their mouth without hearing evidence," Steele said.

Hollinger said she does not intend to step down from the panel, which includes eight Democrats and four Republicans, evenly divided between the Senate and House of Delegates.

She said she thinks the administration is upset about a comment she made in a Washington Times article criticizing the firing of Baltimore County Councilman Vincent J. Gardina from a midlevel state job. Gardina sued and settled with the state for $100,000. The settlement included no acknowledgment of fault by the government.

Hollinger said she has heard anecdotal evidence of questionable firings but is willing to listen to the administration's evidence.

"When you have people walking into your office like many of us have, talking about the kinds of firing they've been through, somebody has to take the responsibility for that," she said. "If it was lawful firing, so be it."

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