- The Washington Times - Wednesday, November 2, 2005

ANNAPOLIS — A group of lawmakers trying to decide whether Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., a Republican, has improperly fired some state employees said yesterday that they may not make their January goal for finishing their probe.

The special committee of senators and delegates learned that state employees trying to put together data on state workers fired over the past decade have hit a computer glitch and don’t have the numbers ready. The delay occurred amid continued squabbling among Democrats and Republicans about whether the probe is overly partisan.

On Tuesday, the governor’s attorney, Jervis Finney, passed to reporters copies of an e-mail that he said suggests that Democrats were behind an unknown Internet blogger, known as MD4Bush, who goaded former Ehrlich aide Joseph Steffen into spreading rumors about Baltimore Mayor Martin O’Malley, a Democrat. Mr. Steffen was fired after the rumors were reported by The Washington Post, and some Republicans are calling for the reporter to be subpoenaed to see whether he knows whether MD4Bush was really a Democrat trying to embarrass the governor.

“Let’s get to the truth, to the bottom of this,” Senate Republican leader J. Lowell Stoltzfus of Somerset County, who called the firing inquiry a “purely partisan attack on the governor.”

Lawmakers on the committee are trying to decide whether Maryland state employees need new laws protecting them from unfair firings. Mr. Ehrlich and other Republicans insist that politics played no role in the firings of any employees, although Mr. Steffen recently told the Baltimore Sun that he was told to fire some low-level employees to make room for Republicans. Mr. Steffen is considering his own run for governor next year, the newspaper reported.

All the sideline debates about the firing probe — whether it should exist, whether it should examine reporters or online bloggers, and who should testify to the committee — are bogging down the inquiry. At yesterday’s meeting, their sixth, lawmakers spent nearly an hour just trying to establish ground rules for future witnesses. Then they debated the computer glitch and adjourned without getting any closer to finding out whether the governor has acted improperly.

The co-chairmen of the committee — Democratic Sen. Thomas M. Middleton of Charles County and Delegate Adrienne A. Jones of Baltimore County, both Democrats — said they are not sure the probe will be finished by January, when lawmakers return for the 2006 session.

“It has been slow,” conceded Mrs. Jones, who dismissed Republican attempts to subpoena a reporter or delve into the identity of the blogger. “It has nothing to do with the employees who were terminated,” she said.

Mr. Middleton said he was more concerned with getting the probe done properly than with finishing in a hurry.

“If it takes until January of 2007 to do as thorough, complete and timely review as possible, I’m committed to that,” he said.

Next up for the committee is a look at past firing data — which may be done by the end of the week — to help them learn whether Mr. Ehrlich’s employee practices differed from former governors. Then, lawmakers on the committee will suggest witnesses to the committee’s new attorney, Ward Coe of Baltimore, a nonpartisan outsider tapped to sort through potential witnesses and pare them down for the committee.

Mrs. Jones and Mr. Middleton said they had no idea when testimony would begin, how many witnesses might be called, or whether the committee will even use its power to subpoena people who don’t want to testify.

The committee next meets Nov. 22, though Mr. Middleton told members that he might call them back sooner if the computer glitch is resolved.

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