- The Washington Times - Monday, April 18, 2005

ANNAPOLIS — A proposed investigation into Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr.’s firing of Democrats is moving slowly because Democratic leaders fear it will exonerate the governor, a Maryland legislative committee member said.

“You run the risk of finding nothing. That’s what is scaring people,” said Sen. Lisa A. Gladden, a Baltimore Democrat named to the investigatory committee. “They are afraid of finding nothing.”

Still, some lawmakers are concerned that political operatives on the state payroll are scrutinizing whether other state employees are loyal to the Republican governor, Ms. Gladden said.

The General Assembly leadership has started to shift the focus away from Mr. Ehrlich and toward the patronage system, which allows the governor to fire without cause any of the more than 7,000 politically appointed state workers.

“At the bare minimum, we should look into the operation and use of the personnel system,” said Sen. Brian E. Frosh, Montgomery County Democrat and chairman of the Judicial Proceedings Committee who reportedly would head up the investigation. “The governor has more patronage than the president of the United States has. That’s something that bares a hard look, no matter what you think of Governor Ehrlich’s actions.”

House Speaker Michael E. Busch and Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr. said the governor acted unethically in firing Democrats from appointment-level posts even if he had legal authority.

The two Democratic leaders dismissed Republicans’ complaints that the investigation would be a “witch hunt.”

“If we do have an investigation, it will be a bona fide investigation,” said Mr. Miller, who represents Prince George’s and Calvert counties. “I see a definite need for an investigation and a definite need to reform the [patronage] system.”

He said an investigation would allow fired state workers to air their grievances against the administration and help lawmakers determine whether the governor acted appropriately.

Mr. Busch, who represents Anne Arundel County, said the leaders will wait at least another month before deciding whether “compelling evidence” exists to commission a full-fledged investigation. They will look for evidence of political firings or a campaign to identify and root out workers not politically aligned with Mr. Ehrlich, he said.

“I think there is an ethical, if not a legal, problem with that,” Mr. Busch said.

Democratic lawmakers called for a probe after learning Feb. 8 that longtime Ehrlich aide Joseph F. Steffen Jr. had used e-mail and Internet chat rooms to spread marital infidelity rumors about Baltimore Mayor Martin O’Malley, a likely Democratic challenger for governor next year.

Mr. Ehrlich immediately fired Mr. Steffen, who worked as a spokesman for the Maryland Insurance Administration.

Democratic lawmakers questioned the administration’s personnel decisions after press accounts described Mr. Steffen as a political operative who called himself “Dr. Death” because he rooted out Democrats to be fired from state jobs.

Mr. Ehrlich said he welcomed an investigation.

Lawrence J. Hogan Jr., the governor’s secretary of appointments, said the Ehrlich administration in three years has fired 280 of the 7,000 at-will workers, about 2 percent a year. His Democratic predecessor, Gov. Parris N. Glendening, fired 309 at-will workers from the Department of Transportation alone in a single year, he said.

“The whole thing is nonsense,” Mr. Hogan said. “The previous administration moved all these people into these [patronage] positions and the Democrats don’t want to see their friends leave.”

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