- The Washington Times - Wednesday, July 12, 2006

BEL AIR, Md. (AP) — A former aide whom Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. nicknamed “Prince of Darkness” is back.

Joseph F. Steffen Jr. disappeared from public view shortly after he was fired for spreading rumors on the Internet about Baltimore Mayor Martin O’Malley, the governor’s political rival, and shortly before he could be subpoenaed by state lawmakers who wanted to ask him about his role in firing low-level state workers.

Mr. Steffen returned to the Baltimore area June 30 to work as a political consultant to Aaron Kazi, 37, a Republican businessman who is running for Harford County Council president.

Mr. Steffen told the Baltimore Sun that he is ready to testify before a bipartisan committee investigating Mr. Ehrlich’s hiring and firing practices.

Earlier this year, the committee’s special counsel, Ward B. Coe III, tried without success to get Mr. Steffen to testify. Investigators were unable to serve a subpoena because none of Mr. Steffen’s friends and neighbors seemed to know where he was.

“It seemed like he just dropped off the face of the Earth,” Mr. Coe said.

Mr. Steffen said he wasn’t hiding, just working.

He said he was working as a contractor for consulting firms in Northern Virginia and the District. He would not name the firms, saying the work is confidential. He said he couldn’t return phone calls because his personal cell phone had been shut off because he was months behind on paying his bill.

But he said he is willing now to testify before the committee if it wants him to, although he called the personnel investigation “so 2005.”

“It was never strictly a personnel thing,” Mr. Steffen said. “We looked at programs, policies and, yeah, we looked at personnel, but never by party affiliation. Are you going to tell me that if O’Malley wins, he’s not going to have people in agencies looking at the same things we were? Of course he would, and if he doesn’t, I’d say he’s a bad manager.”

Sen. Brian E. Frosh, Montgomery Democrat and committee member, said he was troubled by Mr. Steffen’s description of the investigation as old news.

“One of the problems with the conduct the Ehrlich administration engaged in was a real damage to the morale of the state work force,” he said. “I think we can fix that, but the attitude that it’s ‘last year’ is symptomatic of the administration’s response to this.”

Mr. Steffen, 47, worked for Mr. Ehrlich in various capacities for more than two decades. He said Mr. Ehrlich gave him the name “Prince of Darkness” because of his wardrobe and his penchant for keeping the lights off in his office.

But some of the governor’s former political opponents also suspect Mr. Steffen was the architect of dirty campaign tactics. Mr. Steffen has acknowledged he has done many things he is not proud of in political campaigns, but he has refused to talk about specifics.

Mr. Steffen said Mr. Kazi’s campaign will be “the cleanest-run campaign in the state of Maryland — I promise you that.”

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