Panel is created to study Ehrlich personnel moves

Legislative leaders created a committee yesterday to examine Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr.'s personnel practices, saying they need to investigate allegations that the administration fired longtime bureaucrats solely because of their political affiliation.

Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller and House Speaker Michael E. Busch insisted they want a fair, bipartisan inquiry into state personnel law and practices, not a witch hunt designed to embarrass the governor.

That was enough to mollify the administration, which had been threatening to unveil evidence of legislators using their influence to obtain government jobs for friends and relatives.

"If this is a legitimate inquiry into the personnel system, we look forward to cooperating," said Ehrlich's communications director, Paul E. Schurick. "There obviously are some legislators who have no interest in a fair and objective look. ... It sounds like Senator Miller is prepared to reject that political agenda. I take him at his word."

The Special Committee on State Employee Rights and Protections was approved unanimously by a joint committee of the House and Senate leadership. It will be made up of four Democrats and two Republicans from each chamber.

But key questions remain, including the scope of the inquiry, whether the committee will have its own staff or a professional investigator, and whether it will have subpoena power. Miller and Busch asked the committee to meet over the summer and return in August with recommendations.

'At will' workers

Miller sought to steer the focus away from hiring practices and to the question of whether the administration acted inappropriately in firing state employees.

He said he expects the committee to look into allegations that Ehrlich loyalists such as Joseph F. Steffen Jr. -- the aide who was fired after spreading rumors about Mayor Martin O'Malley -- were sent into state agencies to root out those who were not sufficiently committed to the governor.

But he said he also thinks the committee should consider the effects of a 1998 law change that increased the number of state employees considered "at will." The change, he said, was designed to give the state more management flexibility and the ability to promote good workers, but it also meant that those employees serve at the pleasure of the governor -- and can be fired at his prerogative.

"We need to look at allegations we've heard before in terms of employee terminations, whether career civil servants have had their rights infringed upon and whether the law needs to be changed to protect their rights," Miller said.

Schurick said the administration has not fired a single employee who was not classified as "at will." Some workers might have thought that their longevity protected them, but they were wrong, Schurick said.

Del. Kumar P. Barve, the House majority leader from Montgomery County, said there is no way the administration can justify firing large numbers of state employees who aren't involved in policy-making.

Democrats expected the governor to hire his own policy-making team, but if he's interpreting the 1998 law to allow him to fire bureaucrats who carry out the policies, the law might need to be changed, Barve said. "The objective here is to see if people who are not political are being fired simply because they were hired by the previous administration," Barve said.

Past administrations

Republican lawmakers said any examination of the personnel system should also take into account the hiring practices of previous administrations. Many legislators -- including Miller -- have had relatives on the state payroll, said Sen. J. Lowell Stoltzfus, the minority leader from the Eastern Shore.

"If you want to examine personnel policy, you need to look at the whole picture," Stoltzfus said. "I'm not saying they're unqualified. I'm just saying there's a nepotism operation going on."

Stoltzfus insisted that if the committee is given subpoena power, the minority members should also be allowed to exercise it.

Schurick said yesterday that the governor has evidence of Democratic lawmakers who have attempted to use their positions to influence hiring, but he said the administration will not release it as long as the legislature maintains a balanced inquiry into personnel practices.

Busch promised that it will be. "This is going to be a bipartisan committee," he said.

The committee will be led by Sen. Thomas M. Middleton and Del. Adrienne A.W. Jones. Both are Democrats, but neither has been among the sharpest critics of the administration.

The other Senate members will be Democrats Ulysses Currie, Brian E. Frosh and Paula C. Hollinger and Republicans John J. Hafer and Stoltzfus.

Busch, who hasn't named all of his committee members, said he is looking for people with personnel backgrounds, but he said one member will be Del. George C. Edwards, the House minority leader.