- The Washington Times - Tuesday, October 18, 2005

ANNAPOLIS —A Baltimore lawyer and self-professed Democrat was hired yesterday by the committee investigating the firings of state employees by Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr.’s administration.

The Special Joint Committee on State Employee Rights and Protections voted unanimously to hire Ward B. Coe III as special counsel.

The committee set Mr. Coe’s salary at $250 per hour, but gave no indication about how many hours Mr. Coe would work or the extent of his duties.

Mr. Coe is expected to advise the panel on legal matters, including the issuing of subpoenas and conflicts of interest.

Mr. Ehrlich, a Republican, has raised concerns about bias against the administration and potential conflicts of interest among Democrats on the 12-member panel.

The governor’s legal counsel, Jervis S. Finney, has requested that Delegate Adrienne A. Jones, Baltimore County Democrat and co-chairman of the committee, recuse herself because of her relationship with Baltimore County Council member Vincent J. Gardina.

Mr. Gardina has become a focus of the investigation for several members of the panel. He sued the administration, saying he was fired from his state job because he is a Democrat.

As a member of the Baltimore County Council, however, Mr. Gardina participates in decisions regarding Mrs. Jones’ salary as director of the county’s community-affairs office. That creates a conflict of interest, Mr. Finney said.

Sen. Thomas M. Middleton, Charles County Democrat and co-chairman of the panel, has said the outside attorney would be the one to address those concerns.

“This whole issue of … the appropriateness of Vince Gardina coming before the committee, of Delegate Jones sitting on the committee, we have to have special counsel’s advice on this,” Mr. Middleton said.

The administration also asked Sen. Brian E. Frosh, Montgomery Democrat, to recuse himself in June after The Washington Times reported that he made statements, even before the committee had convened, indicating he had decided that the administration fired people illegally.

Mr. Frosh rejected the request.

Republican lawmakers have accused Democrats of conducting a “witch hunt.”

They say the probe was tainted from its inception because they were excluded from selecting members to serve on the committee, composed of four Democrats and two Republicans each from the House and the Senate.

Mr. Coe, who heads the litigation department at the law firm of Whiteford, Taylor & Preston, told The Times yesterday that committee members had asked him about his party affiliation while interviewing him for the job.

“I told them I was a Democrat,” he said.

Mr. Coe said his political affiliation would not affect his work.

“I’m a lawyer, and my job is to provide the committee with legal advice and assist them in conducting the investigation,” he said.

He was among eight candidates interviewed last week by the special committee’s subcommittee on staffing.

The eight candidates were chosen from a pool of 17 lawyers who applied for the job, according to the subcommittee.

The subcommittee unanimously recommended Mr. Coe for the job.

The special committee yesterday accepted the subcommittee’s recommendation with little discussion.

“He has an outstanding reputation in the bar,” said Mr. Frosh, co-chairman of the subcommittee. “Everyone I talked to about him had only positive things to say.”

Senate Minority Leader J. Lowell Stoltzfus, an Eastern Shore Republican on the subcommittee and a vocal critic of the investigation, reluctantly supported Mr. Coe’s appointment.

“Of course, I don’t think it is necessary to have a special counsel,” said Mr. Stoltzfus, “though I was impressed with the qualifications of Mr. Coe.”

Mr. Coe, who served as assistant Maryland attorney general in the early 1970s, has extensive experience leading internal probes of bookkeeping irregularities at financial institutions.

He served as chief of staff for Wilbur D. Preston Jr., state special counsel, in the investigation of Maryland’s savings and loan industry in the mid-1980s, according to his resume, which was supplied by the committee.

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