- The Washington Times - Wednesday, June 22, 2005

ANNAPOLIS — Senate Republican leaders vowed yesterday to withdraw members from a special committee investigating the Ehrlich administration if Democrats continue to undercut the bipartisan makeup of the probe.

“If Republicans are not given equal voice in this inquisition, then I don’t think we should participate,” said Senate Minority Leader J. Lowell Stoltzfus, an Eastern Shore Republican and one of two Senate Republicans appointed to the special committee.

Republicans say the inquiry was tainted from its inception last week when they were excluded from selecting lawmakers to serve on the Special Committee on State Employee Rights and Protections.

The other Senate Republican on the committee is John J. Hafer, a Western Maryland Republican who has been at odds with the party and has declared he will not seek re-election next year. He has declined to comment about his relationship with the party or his role in the investigation.

Mr. Stoltzfus said he was not objecting to the selection of Mr. Hafer, but he called on Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr. to reconsider the appointments.

The Democrats are the majority in the state’s General Assembly. Mr. Stoltzfus said Mr. Miller should respect new Senate rules allowing the minority party to pick its own members for standing committees.

The 12-member special committee — which will have four Democratic and two Republican members from the House and Senate — is scheduled to begin its inquiry this fall. It could examine a range of issues, but is expected to focus on charges the Ehrlich administration purged Democrats from appointment-level state jobs.

The inquiry stems from charges that longtime Ehrlich aide Joseph F. Steffen Jr. 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 Baltimore Mayor Martin O’Malley, a potential rival of Mr. Ehrlich’s in the 2006 governor’s race.

The investigation of Mr. Ehrlich is the legislature’s first probe of someone outside the General Assembly in more than 25 years.

Mr. Ehrlich has said he welcomes a fair investigation and has pledged full cooperation.

However, Paul E. Schurick, the governor’s communications director and a top adviser, said the administration would not get involved in the disagreement about appointees and will watch the situation closely.

“The makeup of the committee and what [members] do will tell us if this is a legitimate exercise or a witch hunt,” he said.

Mr. Miller, Prince George’s Democrat, now is in Israel and unavailable for comment. But in recent weeks, he repeatedly has promised a “fair and bipartisan” probe.

The special committee still lacks most of its House members.

House Speaker Michael E. Busch, Anne Arundel Democrat, so far has appointed just two members. House Minority Leader George C. Edwards, Western Maryland Republican, will be a committee member, and Delegate Adrienne A. Jones, Baltimore County Democrat, will serve as co-chairman.

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