- The Washington Times - Thursday, March 1, 2007

ANNAPOLIS — The state Senate passed two bills yesterday to further protect the jobs of state employees, even though a more than $1 million investigation found no criminal wrongdoing in firings under the Ehrlich administration.

Critics say changes by Gov. Martin O’Malley, a Democrat, have rendered the bills toothless.

The legislation, which now goes to the House, is the result of a yearlong inquiry into firing practices of Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., a Republican.

When Mr. Ehrlich took office in 2003, some state employees lost their jobs in a manner so heavy-handed that some accused Mr. Ehrlich of violating the law by targeting Democrats to make room for Republicans.

Further aggravating Democrats was an Ehrlich appointments secretary who jokingly called himself the “Prince of Darkness” and reportedly carried a grim reaper statuette to strike fear into employees.

When the investigation into the dismissals ended last fall, the Democrat-controlled legislature found no criminal activity but concluded that employment rules should be revised to make gubernatorial firings more difficult.

The investigation sputtered after Mr. Ehrlich lost to Mr. O’Malley in the November election. The resulting bills that passed yesterday raised little interest in Annapolis.

Sen. J. Lowell Stoltzfus, an Eastern Shore Republican who served on the committee investigating the firings, repeatedly called the accusations a smear campaign against Mr. Ehrlich.

“I will always believe that this process … was at its heart political,” Mr. Stoltzfus said before voting against one of the bills. “This bill doesn’t do a whole lot.”

Sen. Thomas McLain Middleton, Charles County Democrat, noted that the Senate adopted 10 of 11 changes requested by the O’Malley administration, but said they only added clarification.

The resulting legislation did not reduce the number of so-called “at-will” employees — those who can be fired by a governor without cause. One bill stipulates that some of the employees should be more clearly identified as political appointments subject to losing their jobs for partisan reasons.

The measure also removes a governor’s ability to use an appointments secretary to fire people against the wishes of department heads.

Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr., Prince George’s Democrat, defended the inquiry.

“I think the Senate thinks it was a worthwhile thing to go through,” he said.

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