- The Washington Times - Tuesday, August 23, 2005

ANNAPOLIS — Democratic leaders pledged to conduct an unbiased investigation yesterday at the first meeting of a committee probing firings of state workers, but Sen. Brian E. Frosh continued to say the Ehrlich administration broke the law and the committee would prove it.

Mr. Frosh, a Montgomery Democrat, rebuffed an administration request earlier this month to recuse himself from the 12-member Special Joint Committee on State Employee Rights and Protections because of his reputed bias against the governor, a Republican.

He told The Washington Times yesterday that he thinks Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr.’s administration illegally fired state workers and he predicted the investigation would substantiate his claim.

The co-chairmen of the committee, Sen. Thomas McLain Middleton and Delegate Adrienne A. Jones, stressed that the investigation would be conducted in a “fair and impartial manner.”

“Senator Middleton and myself want to say as strongly as we can that no matter what has been reported in the press, there are no predetermined findings of fact,” Mrs. Jones, a Baltimore County Democrat, said in a prepared statement read at the start of the hearing.

“To allow such would undermine the purpose and credibility of this committee,” she said. “We trust that all of the members of this committee are willing to be open-minded and fair during the course of the work of the special committee before rendering any final conclusions.”

Mr. Middleton, a Charles Democrat, said the committee would examine the need to amend laws that protect state workers, including the more than 7,000 at-will workers whom the administration can fire without cause and who are the likely focus of the committee’s efforts.

He also said committee hearings would not be the appropriate venue for former state employees suing the state because they were fired.

Mr. Frosh, who has been criticized for his close ties to a lawyer representing several disgruntled workers, disagreed. He said testimony by those former employees would be instructive.

Despite Mr. Frosh’s comments after the hearing, Republican leaders were encouraged by the chairmen’s conciliatory tone.

“I’m eager at this point to participate,” said Senate Minority Leader J. Lowell Stoltzfus, an Eastern Shore Republican serving on the committee. He previously vowed to quit the investigation if it became an attack on the governor.

Mr. Stoltzfus said he was disappointed by Mr. Frosh’s comments.

“This is a make-nice day,” Mr. Stoltzfus said. “If Senator Frosh wants to continue his accusations against the governor, continue to denigrate the governor, that is his decision.”

The Times reported June 29 that two Democrats on the investigative panel expressed opinions about the legality of the administration’s actions before the committee had convened.

Mr. Frosh was quoted as saying, “The stuff the Ehrlich administration has done is illegal.”

Sen. Paula Colodny Hollinger of Baltimore County, one of eight Democrats on the committee, was quoted as saying the administration’s firings were “against the law.”

Mrs. Hollinger did not repeat her charges when the committee met yesterday.

The committee reviewed a draft resolution establishing the scope and mechanics of the probe, which included subpoena power.

The resolution said the committee would examine the personnel practices of the Ehrlich administration and recent Democratic administrations to determine whether state law provides sufficient protections against “illegal and unconstitutional” firings.

The resolution also charged the committee with deciding whether firings of state employees have damaged the “efficiency and effectiveness” of state agencies.

The committee will meet Thursday to vote on the resolution and any amendments.

The resolution set a Jan. 4 deadline for the committee to conclude its work, but it also allowed the committee to extend the deadline.

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