A longtime campaign operative of Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. resigned his state job yesterday after admitting he had been spreading rumors on the Internet about the personal life of Baltimore Mayor Martin O'Malley.
Joseph Steffen, 45, said he gave the governor his resignation after questions about his postings on www.FreeRepublic.com, a well-known conservative Web site. The postings discussed O'Malley's marriage.
"The governor had no idea," Steffen said. "I don't even think he knows where the Web site is. If anyone is guilty, it is me. There was no outside influence. It was all me."
The postings about O'Malley from a longtime Ehrlich aide carry particular significance because the mayor is expected to seek the Democratic nomination for governor next year and likely would challenge the incumbent.
The race is expected to be close, and the opposing camps are already jockeying for advantage.
Steffen is a longtime ally of the governor who had worked on several of Ehrlich's congressional campaigns. Democrats say he has earned a reputation in several state agencies as a sharply partisan appointee who was feared as he sought personal information about state workers and demanded that they be fired.
Ehrlich Communications Director Paul E. Schurick said the governor learned about Steffen's postings on the Web site late yesterday afternoon and was "extremely troubled by it."
"The governor made that clear publicly and privately. The governor never will support or condone such behavior and never has. It is unacceptable."
Steffen said he went to his boss, Insurance Commissioner Alfred W. Redmer Jr., and told him that he would have to resign.
"He winced," Steffen said of Redmer's reaction. Redmer is an Ehrlich appointee, former state delegate and House minority leader.
Next, Steffen said, he called Ehrlich administration officials to inform them of his pending resignation.
"They were basically like, 'If you think that's what you need to do,'" Steffen said.
He resigned shortly thereafter, Schurick said.
Schurick said he did not know whether Steffen had ever engaged in any other similar behavior.
"It doesn't matter," Schurick said. "It, in and of itself, is intolerable to the governor."
O'Malley could not be reached for comment last night.
"It is despicable and no family should ever have to endure these kinds of lies and this type of smear campaign just because their father holds a public office," said Rick Abbruzzese, a spokesman for O'Malley. "The mayor's marriage is strong."
O'Malley's father-in-law, Maryland Attorney General J. Joseph Curran Jr., decried the rumors and lamented their impact on his daughter's family. Curran's daughter, Catherine, a city District Court judge, is married to O'Malley.
"It is an outrage that people practice the politics of destruction rather than the politics of good government. I'm outraged that these things go on," Curran said.
"We always knew it [the rumor] was false, because Martin and Katie have such a strong and loving relationship. Everyone knew they were false. It is hurtful when you see your own daughter hurt. I'm upset when people in politics do such terrible things," Curran said.
"We didn't know where it was coming from, to be honest with you," Curran said. "I heard rumors about who it might have been. I just wanted it to stop. I had some idea who it might be coming from."
O'Malley and his staff have been reluctant to discuss the marital rumors, which have been swirling for months.
But the mayor alluded to the speculation shortly after his re-election in November, in a discussion about former Police Commissioner Kevin P. Clark.
"There have been, in the course of this new sort of character-smear style of politics, numerous allegations pushed about me," O'Malley said. "Does that say something about me or about the person making the allegations?"
Until yesterday, Steffen had been director of communications at the Maryland Insurance Administration. He had worked previously in the state Department of Human Resources and the Department of Juvenile Services, all since Ehrlich took office in January 2003.
House Speaker Michael E. Busch said last night that he had never met Steffen but knew him by reputation, referring to him as "The Turk" - a National Football League term for a team official dreaded during training camp because he delivers the news that players have been cut.
"It's a new low in government," Busch said, referring to how Steffen operated in various agencies. "It's a Gestapo-like mentality that becomes instilled in government. ... It sends a chilling message to people who have dedicated their life to public service."
Told that Ehrlich had accepted Steffen's resignation, the speaker said: "Clearly his sin was not crossing the line.
"Clearly his sin was getting caught."
Steffen, a Rosedale resident, denied last night that he acted as some kind of covert operative for the governor.
Asked whether he was told to ferret out Democrats in state agencies and departments, Steffen said: "Absolutely not." He said, for example, that he did not know that Democratic Baltimore County Councilman Vincent J. Gardina had been paid $100,000 to settle a lawsuit stemming from his firing from a state job until he read about it in The Sun.
"I had no idea until today that he was even let go," Steffen said. "I had no idea that he was even hired."
He said he moved to various agencies to work on "different tasks" that the governor asked of him.
Steffen said his resignation was prompted by a visit yesterday from a Washington Post reporter armed with the Web site postings. He used the handle "ncpac" while writing on the Web site.
"I could see where the reporter was trying to go with the story, and I was not going to allow that to happen," he said. "I have regrets for doing something that I obviously shouldn't have done. And I have regrets that the governor may take a hit because of it."
The Internet name "ncpac" is a reference to the National Conservative Political Action Committee, which was active in the early 1980s and, according to the Associated Press, spent "hundreds of thousands of dollars on tough 'negative advertising' in a bid to make a supposedly liberal Democratic politician more vulnerable at the polls."
Steffen was a spokesman for the committee in the 1980s, and by 1984 he was working on a Republican congressional campaign in Virginia.
Lt. Gov. Michael S. Steele said he learned of the resignation last night, and he condemned the rumor-spreading.
"It's unfortunate. It's ignorant. It's not something this administration condones," Steele said.
Gerry Brewster, a Towson Democrat who ran against Ehrlich in the governor's first congressional election in 1994, said Steffen was well known as "the dirty tricks operative" of Ehrlich's campaign.
Steffen said he would be returning to his office at the Maryland Insurance Administration today to clean out his desk and write his resignation letter.
Sun staff writers Lynn Anderson and Ivan Penn contributed to this article.