- The Washington Times - Tuesday, January 10, 2006

ANNAPOLIS — A legislative inquiry into the firing practices of Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. likely will be delayed again.

A panel of lawmakers probing whether the Republican governor unfairly fired Democratic state employees was supposed to conclude its work before this week.

But members of the special committee announced yesterday that at least five more workers would be called to testify and that a second extension likely would be sought.

“I don’t see how we can finish by January 31,” said Sen. Thomas M. Middleton, Charles Democrat and co-chairman of the committee.

He said lawmakers need to hear from more former employees before deciding whether to recommend new protections for workers or a reduction in the number of at-will employees — those whom a governor may fire for any reason.

The slow pace of the inquiry has frustrated state. Sen. J. Lowell Stoltzfus, an Eastern Shore Republican who has said since the beginning that the investigation is overly partisan and a waste of time.

Mr. Stoltzfus, the Senate Republican leader, repeated his concerns yesterday.

“The taxpayers should not have to absorb the cost for a fishing expedition that has turned up nothing,” he said.

The state has paid at least $27,000 to an independent lawyer hired to conduct the inquiry and call witnesses.

Ward Coe of Baltimore, who said he charges $250 an hour, briefed the panel yesterday in a closed-door session on his progress and his strategy for wrapping up the investigation.

Afterward, Democrats said that the inquiry is making progress and that it is important to investigate whether state employees need more job protections.

The House chairman of the committee — Adrienne A. Jones, Baltimore County Democrat — said there will be more progress once all lawmakers are in Annapolis for the regular session.

“I don’t think anyone wants to carry this forward in an election year,” Mrs. Jones said.

The panel has not heard from Joseph Steffen, a former aide to Mr. Ehrlich who kept a statue of the Grim Reaper on his desk when he worked at the Maryland Department of Human Resources and was said to suggest firings.

The list of future witnesses was not made public yesterday, though Sen. Brian E. Frosh, Montgomery Democrat, said he hoped lawmakers eventually would hear from Mr. Steffen.

“Our inquiry would not complete without hearing from him,” Mr. Frosh said.

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