Thursday, February 14, 2008

ANNAPOLIS — Comptroller Peter Franchot yesterday accused Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr. of conspiring to fire top aides in the comptroller’s office.

Mr. Franchot, one of the state’s most outspoken Democrats and a frequent critic of Gov. Martin O’Malley and other Democratic leaders, has turned the otherwise sleepy role of tax collector into a jumping-off point for higher office over the past year.

“My independence is leading to significant political retaliation by the Senate president,” Mr. Franchot said yesterday. “The public hates this kind of backroom political payback and retribution for simply standing up and speaking my mind.”

Mr. Franchot said his opposition to legalizing slot machines — a priority of Mr. Miller’s — made him a target, although the comptroller has frequently tussled with Democratic leaders on other issues.

Mr. Franchot said he had heard “credible rumors” over the past week that Mr. Miller, Southern Maryland Democrat, planned to eliminate the jobs of David Weaver, Mr. Franchot’s chief of staff, and Deputy Comptroller Len Foxwell.

“He’s an embarrassment to the state of Maryland,” Mr. Miller said yesterday. He said the comptroller’s office was a “one-stop political shop designed to grandstand and promote Peter Franchot.”

However, Mr. Miller said he would not vote to remove any specific Franchot aides. He said he would support budget cuts suggested by the General Assembly’s budget analysts.

The Department of Legislative Services, the independent department that analyzes the budgets of every state agency and office, is expected to release its analysis of the comptroller’s budget by the end of the week.

The comptroller’s budget will be examined by House and Senate budget committees Monday and Tuesday.

Some have suggested that Mr. Miller pressured chief budget analyst Warren G. Deschenaux to recommend the firing of Mr. Weaver and Mr. Foxwell — two of the highest-paid members of Mr. Franchot’s staff.

But Mr. Deschenaux denied that charge.

“Nobody has attempted to give us any directions about how to address the comptroller’s budget,” he said, adding that his agency operates independently of political pressure.

Mr. Franchot and T. Eloise Foster, Mr. O’Malley’s budget secretary, fought last year over salary increases for Mr. Franchot’s top aides — including the two targeted by Mr. Miller.

In another rebuke, lawmakers quietly removed Mr. Franchot’s power to independently appoint the director of the Board of Revenue Estimates, during the November special session.

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