- The Washington Times - Tuesday, December 20, 2005

ANNAPOLIS — A high-level state official yesterday told the General Assembly committee investigating the firings of state employees that he threatened to resign because an Ehrlich administration operative was meddling in the department.

Christopher J. McCabe, secretary of the state’s Human Resources Department, identified the administration aide as Joseph F. Steffen Jr. and characterized him as someone who attempted to overstep his authority and upset employees with the Grim Reaper and Darth Vader statues on his desk.

However, he said Mr. Steffen did not influence personnel decisions or help shape department policy.

“He had a dark sense of humor,” Mr. McCabe told the Special Joint Committee on State Employee Rights & Protections. “It made me uncomfortable and made other people uncomfortable.”

Mr. Steffen was a longtime aide to Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., a Republican, and was assigned to the department in September 2003 as a “troubleshooter.”

Mr. McCabe was the first administration official to appear before the 12-member committee, which since August has been investigating the firings.

He said Mr. Steffen was removed from the department after he complained.

Robert L. Flanagan, secretary of the state’s Department of Transportation, also testified.

He and Mr. McCabe said they took full responsibility for the firings in their departments and that the aim was to fix troubled agencies, not purge them of political foes.

“We are looking for excellence,” Mr. Flanagan said. “We are trying to make this government a great government, and we are looking for a team to do that.”

Mr. Steffen, who was the first administration staffer accused of secretly working to purge Democrats from the state government, has long been the central figure in the probe.

Democratic leaders began calling for an investigation in February when Mr. Steffen was discovered engaged in rumormongering about Baltimore Mayor Martin O’Malley, a Democratic candidate for governor.

Mr. Ehrlich immediately dismissed Mr. Steffen, but Democratic leaders quickly shifted their focus to Mr. Steffen’s role in firings.

Mr. Steffen had compiled a “hit list” of five management-level workers to fire in the Human Resources Department, according to testimony last week by a former personnel director for the agency.

Mr. McCabe said he never saw such a list and never consulted Mr. Steffen about firings or other decisions affecting the department.

“There is a reason [Mr. Steffen] is a former state employee,” said Ehrlich spokesman Henry P. Fawell.

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