- The Washington Times - Sunday, June 19, 2005

ANNAPOLIS — Democratic lawmakers seeking to investigate the Ehrlich administration’s firings long supported the state’s patronage system when their party controlled it and voted to increase the number of patronage jobs in 1998, critics of the probe say.

“It’s a political ploy, and in my mind, it is to embarrass the governor,” Maryland Comptroller William Donald Schaefer, a maverick Democrat, said of the investigation.

“If they don’t like [the patronage law], then change it,” said state Senate Minority Leader J. Lowell Stoltzfus, Somerset County Republican. “To now launch an investigation into a practice that fully complies with the law we passed is unconscionable.”

The Democrat-controlled General Assembly last week set up the Special Committee on State Employee Rights and Protections to examine Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr.’s hirings and firings. The panel — which will have eight Democratic and four Republican members — is scheduled to begin its probe this fall.

It is the legislature’s first investigation of someone outside the General Assembly in more than 25 years.

Moreover, committee members have not ruled out an examination of the patronage system, which includes more than 7,000 at-will employees a governor can hire and fire without cause.

Mr. Schaefer, a former governor and mayor of Baltimore, said a bona fide probe of patronage jobs would reveal widespread nepotism in the state government, which Democrats dominated at every level before Mr. Ehrlich was elected in 2002 the state’s first Republican governor in more than 30 years.

As an example, Mr. Schaefer pointed to state Attorney General J. Joseph Curran Jr., a Democrat, whose two children received prominent state jobs from former Gov. Parris N. Glendening, also a Democrat.

The attorney general’s son, J. Joseph “Max” Curran III, was appointed to the Maryland Public Service Commission. His daughter, Catherine Curran O’Malley, received a district court judgeship in Baltimore. Judge O’Malley is married to Baltimore Mayor Martin O’Malley, a Democrat.

Mr. Schaefer said he was not questioning the Currans’ qualifications, but said family connections cannot be ignored.

Asked to respond to Mr. Schaefer’s comments, the attorney general said he had “no control over the process” that selected his children for state jobs.

Mr. Ehrlich repeatedly has said that he welcomes a fair investigation.

Administration officials, however, have said they will release information about numerous and persistent requests from legislators seeking jobs for friends and supporters if the investigation becomes an attack on the governor.

The inquiry stems from accusations that longtime Ehrlich aide Joseph Steffen secretly worked at identifying state employees to be fired for insufficient loyalty to the administration.

The accusations surfaced after the governor discharged Mr. Steffen from a midlevel state job in April for using the Internet to spread rumors of infidelity about Mr. O’Malley, a potential rival of Mr. Ehrlich’s in next year’s governor’s race.

Mr. Stoltzfus, one of four Republicans to serve on the special committee, said lawmakers thoroughly debated at-will firings when the patronage system was expanded in 1998.

Democratic leaders also found no fault when Mr. Glendening fired scores of at-will workers from the Maryland Department of the Environment and the Department of Natural Resources (DNR), he said.

DNR Assistant Secretary Mike E. Slattery was fired by Mr. Glendening in 2001 and rehired by Mr. Ehrlich a year later. Mr. Slattery said he was never told why he was fired, though he suspected the former governor disapproved of his close ties to hunters and the forestry industry.

“It has long been the case that at-will employees can be fired for whatever reason. … It might not be pleasant, but that is the reality,” he said. “So there is no reason for [the investigation] to happen.”

Mr. Glendening also fired 309 at-will employees from the Transportation Department in a single year. Since taking office in 2003, Mr. Ehrlich has fired a total of 280 employees throughout the state government, according to administration officials.

Mr. Stoltzfus described the investigation as a “totally partisan, opportunistic witch hunt.”

Delegate Adrienne A. Jones, Baltimore County Democrat and co-chairman of the special committee, said charges of nepotism are a “smoke screen” and the conduct of previous administrations is not the issue at hand.

“It is going to be thorough. It is going to be accurate, not a witch hunt. I find that insulting,” she said of the investigation. “My method of operation is not to embarrass. My method of operation is to deal with facts. There’s no politics in dealing with facts.”

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