- The Washington Times - Tuesday, May 24, 2005

ANNAPOLIS — Democratic leaders are at odds over how to conduct an investigation into whether the Ehrlich administration fired appointment-level state workers because they were deemed insufficiently loyal to the Republican governor.

Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr., a Democrat representing Calvert and Prince George’s counties, is spearheading the probe, which is set to begin in the fall.

“Abuse took place,” Mr. Miller told The Washington Times yesterday. “There is definitely going to be an investigation.”

House Speaker Michael E. Busch criticized Mr. Miller for delaying the probe until the fall and forgoing preliminary fact-finding to justify a full-fledged investigation.

“You have to lay down the format and the structure of the investigation,” said Mr. Busch, Anne Arundel Democrat.

Though both Democratic leaders agree an investigation is warranted, their qualms over details reflect sustained tension from this year’s legislative session. The two men often were on opposing sides of debate, particularly on the issue of slot-machine gambling. Legalizing slots was the top legislative priority of Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr.

Mr. Miller has been the governor’s chief ally on slots, but Mr. Busch has thwarted the plan in the House for three consecutive years.

The speaker said the Legislative Policy Committee should establish ground rules for the investigation into the state workers’ firings. The joint committee, which makes recommendations to the legislature about pending business, meets next month.

The investigation instead is being organized through private meetings with the leadership staff and the attorney general’s office. Neither Mr. Busch nor Mr. Miller could give any details about the mechanics or scope of the probe.

“We are going to have to sift through what materials come forward,” Mr. Miller said. ?A lot of people have indicated they want to testify before a commission. … It is not going to be a witch hunt. There are going to be parameters of an investigation.”

Democratic lawmakers called for a probe after learning in February that longtime Ehrlich aide Joseph F. Steffen Jr. used e-mail and Internet chat rooms to spread rumors about the marriage of Baltimore Mayor Martin O’Malley, a likely Democratic challenger for governor next year.

Mr. Ehrlich immediately fired Mr. Steffen as spokesman for the Maryland Insurance Administration. Calls for an inquiry were fueled by press accounts that described Mr. Steffen as a political operative who called himself ?Dr. Death? because he rooted out Democrats to be fired from state jobs.

Mr. Ehrlich has said repeatedly that he welcomed an investigation.

Lawrence J. Hogan Jr., the governor’s secretary of appointments, said the Ehrlich administration in three years has fired 280 of its 7,000 at-will workers. Mr. Ehrlich’s Democratic predecessor, Gov. Parris N. Glendening, fired 309 at-will workers in a single year from the Department of Transportation alone, he said.

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