- The Washington Times - Thursday, March 24, 2005

ANNAPOLIS — The Ehrlich administration released e-mails and a photograph yesterday that Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. and his aides say support the notion that there was an orchestrated campaign to make the governor look bad by leaking information about Joseph Steffen, a former gubernatorial aide.

“We really want to know about any political orchestration” by the Democratic Party or Democratic officials, Mr. Ehrlich said.

But Democrats said the documents support the allegations, denied by Mr. Ehrlich, that Mr. Steffen was a close aide of the governor’s who was sent into state agencies to fire workers not considered loyal to the administration.

“We want to publicly thank Governor Ehrlich for further exposing the misdeeds in his administration,” said Josh White, executive director of the state Democratic Party.

Items released in response to federal Public Information Act requests by news organizations included a photograph of Mr. Ehrlich and Mr. Steffen with Michelle Lane, who was fired from her state job last summer, e-mails exchanged by Miss Lane and Mr. Steffen and an e-mail from Miss Lane to the governor and his top aides in February.

In the e-mail to the governor, Miss Lane said the administration had begun a “whisper campaign about me” which she described as “assassination politics.” She said every time she heard “about Ehrlich people engaging in this whisper campaign about me,” she would release more documents relating to Mr. Steffen and his activities in the administration.

Mr. Steffen, a longtime aide to Mr. Ehrlich in Congress and at the state level, was fired by the governor last month after acknowledging he had used a conservative Web site to spread rumors about Baltimore Mayor Martin O’Malley, a potential opponent to Mr. Ehrlich in next year’s gubernatorial race.

The photograph showing Mr. Ehrlich standing between Mr. Steffen and Miss Lane is similar to one sent anonymously to some news outlets, when the Steffen story broke, that showed just the governor and Mr. Ehrlich, with the person on Mr. Ehrlich’s right cropped out of the picture.

“It supports the notion that has been around for quite some time that the Steffen matter has been orchestrated,” Paul Schurick, the governor’s spokesman, said of the photograph and the e-mails.

Asked if there was any Democratic involvement in the Steffen story, Terry Lierman, chairman of the state Democratic Party, said, “Number 1, I never heard of the woman. Number 2, her allegations don’t surprise me because Steffen, who has been a close confident of the governor for 14 years, has an increasingly public record of living up to his job description, which he said is, quote unquote, to hurt people.

“I would suggest that what [the administration is] doing is a lame attempt to try to divert attention from their bad deeds,” Mr. Lierman said.

In documents released earlier by the administration, Mr. Steffen exchanged e-mails with aides at the highest levels of the administration about getting rid of employees in state agencies and replacing them with Ehrlich loyalists. But Mr. Ehrlich and his aides say Mr. Steffen was a low-level employee who did not play any role in deciding who would be hired and fired.

In the documents released yesterday, Mr. Steffen wrote in an e-mail to Miss Lane that when Kenneth Schisler was confirmed as director of the Public Service Commission, “they can start cleaning house.” Several high-level employees were fired by Mr. Schisler over the objections of other members of the commission.

Asked by reporters about his reaction to the e-mail from Miss Lane threatening to release documents relating to Mr. Steffen, Mr. Ehrlich said, “Getting a blackmail e-mail from a woman I don’t know was interesting.”

Daniel Clements, Miss Lane’s lawyer, said her e-mail to Mr. Ehrlich was prompted by “what she believed to be the administration’s attempts to have her fired from her present job” teaching nursing at Towson University.

“She was not blackmailing him. It is in fact outrageous in light of how they treated her as a state employee,” he said. “All she did was bring the failings of the state’s actions toward the children in their control to the administration, and she was throughout ignored and then fired for her whistleblowing.”

Asked if Miss Lane had anything to do with the reports of Mr. Steffen’s role in spreading rumors about Mr. O’Malley or his role in the administration, Mr. Clements said, “It doesn’t matter how the public came to learn of this administration’s unconscionable actions toward state employees. Fortunately, the public already knew about that.”

Mr. Ehrlich said he did not know Miss Lane, even though she worked on his congressional staff and was an employee after he became governor in the Department of Human Resources and the Governor’s Office of Children, Families and Youth.

Democratic leaders in the state Senate and House of Delegates are considering holding hearings about the administration’s hiring and firing practices. Mr. Ehrlich said again yesterday that he not only would welcome such an inquiry but would like to co-host the hearings.

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