Friday, February 11, 2005

ANNAPOLIS — Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. yesterday welcomed a probe by an independent commission into whether the administration spread rumors about Baltimore Mayor Martin O’Malley and used “hatchet men” to weed out Democrats from state jobs.

“Let the [rumor] investigation commence,” he said. “Let the investigation into employment practices commence. …We welcome it.”

Mr. Ehrlich, the state’s first Republican governor in more than three decades, said he would help in the investigation but warned Democrats about the potential consequences of such a probe.

“Maybe be careful what you wish for in the realm of politics,” he said.

Mr. Ehrlich decried the rumor-mongers that had Mr. O’Malley, a potential Democratic candidate for governor in 2006, fathering children with a mistress. Mr. O’Malley has been married to Catherine Curran O’Malley for 14 years, and they have four children.

“It is not fair,” Mr. Ehrlich said. “It is not right. Unfortunately, it is part of the press [and] politics today. … It brings a negative atmosphere to all of us, to everyone in politics.”

The governor said he wanted to speak privately with Mr. O’Malley and express sympathy about the rumors. However, he has not issued a public apology, as some Democratic leaders have suggested.

A spokesman for Mr. O’Malley said the mayor no longer wants to dwell on the rumor.

“He would rather leave it up to the folks in Annapolis,” said Raquel Guillory, an O’Malley spokeswoman. “If there is an investigation, then great.”

Democratic lawmakers proposed the investigation after learning Tuesday longtime Ehrlich aide Joseph F. Steffen Jr. had used e-mail and Internet chat rooms to spread the rumors about Mr. O’Malley.

Mr. Ehrlich fired Mr. Steffen, who had worked in several Maryland agencies, most recently as communications director for the Maryland Insurance Administration.

Lawmakers in the Democrat-controlled General Assembly called for an expanded investigation beyond the rumor issue following press accounts that portrayed Mr. Steffen as a political operative who called himself “Dr. Death” because he rooted out Democrats to be fired from state jobs.

“It is absolutely the appropriate way to go,” said Delegate Peter Franchot, a Montgomery Democrat who was drafting a bill yesterday to give subpoena power to an investigation commission.

“It will not be limited or focused on Joseph Steffen,” he said. “The real issue is the high rate of firings.”

Mr. Franchot said lawmakers have long been concerned about a purge of Democratic state employees but now have a reason to investigate.

“That has been researched beforehand,” he said.

Mr. Franchot also said the “blue-ribbon” commission would have a one-year mandate to investigate the governor and a bipartisan membership that would include former U.S. Attorney Thomas M. DiBiagio, a Republican, and former Maryland Attorney General Steven H. Sachs, a Democrat.

“No Republican nor Democrat should be able to criticize this as a partisan issue,” Mr. Franchot said.

At least one Republican objected to an investigation.

“I think it is political witch hunting,” said House Minority Whip Anthony J. O’Donnell, Calvert and St. Mary’s Republican.

However, Mr. Ehrlich said his administration is the most bipartisan government Maryland has had in nearly 40 years because he appoints Republicans and Democrats.

“When the party that has been in power loses patronage [jobs], people are upset,” he said.

Lawrence J. Hogan Jr., the governor’s appointments secretary, said the administration has never fired a merit employee for political reasons and has appointed Democrats to many positions that serve at the pleasure of the governor, including 40 percent of the executive cabinet.

He also said the investigation was an attempt by Democrats to rescind the governor’s hiring powers now that a Republican holds the office.

“They now want to change the laws they created so they can return to the good old days of Democrats controlling all the patronage in state government,” he said.

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