- The Washington Times - Tuesday, June 28, 2005

ANNAPOLIS — Two Democrats on a special committee to investigate state workers being fired by staffers for Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. say they already have decided the administration broke the law.

“The stuff the Ehrlich administration has done is illegal,” said Sen. Brian E. Frosh, a Montgomery County Democrat on the Special Committee on State Employee Rights and Protections.

The 12-member committee, which will have eight Democrats and four Republicans, is expected to begin investigating the Republican governor later this summer or this fall.

Sen. Paula C. Hollinger, a Baltimore County Democrat on the committee, also has made up her mind, saying the firings were “against the law.”

The comments have not helped Democrats who say the investigation is not a “witch hunt” and have prompted Senate Minority Leader J. Lowell Stoltzfus to vow again to keep Republican lawmakers off the committee if Democrats break their promise to conduct a “fair and bipartisan” probe.

“Being fair certainly means you don’t come in with a prejudgment,” Mr. Stoltzfus, an Eastern Shore Republican and member of the committee, said yesterday.

Sen. Thomas M. Middleton, Charles County Republican, and Delegate Adrienne A. Jones, Baltimore County Democrat, are co-chairmen of the committee. Mr. Middleton could not be reached for comment, and Mrs. Jones did not return calls.

Critics of the investigation say it attempts to embarrass Mr. Ehrlich. They also say Democrats, who previously had a stronghold on the Maryland governorship, had no problem with their administrations’ giving “at will” state jobs to party supporters, even voting in 1998 to increase the number of those jobs.

The state now has more than 7,000 at-will employees, who serve at the pleasure of the governor and can be fired without cause.

Republican lawmakers have said the investigation was tainted from inception because the Democrat-controlled General Assembly excluded them from selecting members to serve on the committee — composed of four Democrats and two Republicans each from the House and the Senate.

The special committee still lacks most of its House members.

House Speaker Michael E. Busch, Anne Arundel County Democrat, so far has appointed just two members, Mrs. Jones and House Minority Leader George C. Edwards, Western Maryland Republican.

The investigation stems from accusations 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 marital infidelity about Baltimore Mayor Martin O’Malley, a Democrat and potential rival of Mr. Ehrlich’s in the 2006 governor’s race.

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

Mrs. Hollinger and Mr. Frosh also said the state’s decision to settle a lawsuit by Baltimore County Council member Vincent J. Gardina, who claimed he was fired from his state job because of his party affiliation, proves the administration acted illegally.

“Vince Gardina was fired because he was a Democrat,” Mr. Frosh said. “It was proven, I think, to a high degree of certainty. … They paid him 100,000 bucks because they didn’t want to answer the question: ‘Why did you fire him?’”

However, the $100,000 settlement includes a “no admissions of liability” clause, said Kevin J. Enright, spokesman for the Maryland Attorney General’s Office.

Mr. Ehrlich has denied wrongdoing in firing at-will workers such as Mr. Gardina and has said he welcomes a fair investigation and will cooperate fully.

However, administration officials have warned that if the probe becomes an attack on the governor, they will reveal a list of lawmakers who persistently have lobbied for state jobs for their family members and friends.

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