- The Washington Times - Wednesday, August 9, 2006

ANNAPOLIS — The General Assembly committee investigating the Ehrlich administration’s firing of state employees said it will explore perjury charges after hearing the long-awaited testimony yesterday of former administration aide Joseph F. Steffen Jr.

Committee members said Mr. Steffen’s testimony appeared to contradict that of Appointments Secretary Lawrence J. Hogan Jr. and Deputy Appointments Secretary Diane M. Baker.

“We need to pursue those issues,” said Sen. Brian E. Frosh of Montgomery County, one of eight Democrats on the 12-member committee investigating personnel practices under Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., a Republican running for re-election.

Mr. Steffen has long been the central figure of the probe by the Special Joint Committee on State Employee Rights and Protections, which has spent nearly a year and more then $1 million but has not shown that the administration purged Democrats from state government jobs.

Assistant Attorney General Robert A. Zarnoch, counsel to the committee, said the perjury issue will be addressed in the committee’s final report, which is not expected until the fall.

Ehrlich spokesman Henry P. Fawell cautioned the committee and leaders of the Democrat-controlled legislature about prematurely making accusations of perjury. “That is an extremely serious accusation, and we hope for their sake they have their facts in order,” he said.

Lying under oath to a legislative committee is a misdemeanor punishable by a maximum 10 years in prison. The committee would have to refer the matter to the Anne Arundel County state’s attorney to pursue perjury charges.

Mr. Steffen’s testimony did not substantiate accusations of politically motivated firings.

“I don’t ever remember anyone saying, ‘These are a bunch of Democrats, go after them, or these are Republicans, save them,’” he told the committee.

However, Mr. Steffen said party affiliation was a “minor factor” in his assessment process before he considered job-performance issues. He said he never had the authority to fire workers.

“I would talk to the various department heads and ask them how the people under them were performing,” he said. “It was more: ‘How is the program running and what needs to be changed?’”

Personnel records show the administration fired about 340 of the state’s 7,000 at-will employees, who can be dismissed without cause.

Mr. Steffen refused to answer questions about his employment and living arrangements after losing his administration job in February 2005.

He was forced to resign after newspaper reports revealed that he had spread rumors on the Internet about Baltimore Mayor Martin O’Malley, a Democratic candidate for governor. The committee probe, which is the General Assembly’s first of someone outside the legislature in 25 years, grew out of the uproar over the rumormongering scandal. The questions about Mr. Steffen’s post-administration livelihood appeared aimed at demonstrating the administration’s continued relationship with Mr. Steffen.

The committee directed Mr. Zarnoch to petition the court to compel Mr. Steffen to answer the question. The petition will be filed in the circuit court for Harford County, where Mr. Steffen lives. The committee has petitioned Baltimore County Circuit Court to compel the testimony of two other witnesses, Transportation Department official Gregory J. Maddalone and Public Service Commission Chief of Staff Craig Chesek. A hearing is scheduled for Oct. 26.

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