Friday, March 11, 2005

ANNAPOLIS — The Ehrlich administration yesterday released about 14,500 e-mails and other documents by a former aide who was fired last month for spreading rumors of infidelity about Baltimore Mayor Martin O’Malley.

The documents, released under the Freedom of Information Act requests filed by a number of television stations and newspapers, show that former aide Joseph F. Steffen Jr. had communicated with Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr.’s wire, Kendel, the day before he was fired.

“I will not hesitate to throw myself on the grenade if that is what I think is needed — or is desired from above,” Mr. Steffen wrote to Mrs. Ehrlich in a Feb. 1 e-mail.

“Relax. You’ll be fine. We need you,” Mrs. Ehrlich replied Feb. 7.

Mrs. Ehrlich’s spokeswoman, Meghann Siwinski, distanced the first lady from Mr. Steffen yesterday.

“Kendel Ehrlich, like the governor, is extremely disappointed in Steffen’s inappropriate behavior, which she was unaware of when she responded as a personal acquaintance to someone who sought her out with his concerns,” Miss Siwinski said.

Mr. Steffen, who was fired Feb. 8, was a spokesman for the Maryland Insurance Administration who had held a series of jobs in the Ehrlich administration. Democrats have accused him of being Mr. Ehrlich’s “hatchet man,” targeting state workers for dismissal for political reasons.

Democratic lawmakers are investigating whether Mr. Steffen used e-mail and Internet chat rooms to spread rumors of infidelity about Mr. O’Malley, a potential Democratic candidate for governor next year.

Mr. Ehrlich forced Mr. Steffen, who apparently referred to himself as “Dr. Death” and “the Prince of Darkness,” to resign after learning of his role in the rumors.

Mr. O’Malley and his wife denounced the innuendoes in a press conference, and Mr. Steffen apologized for spreading the rumors on a conservative Web site.

Among the e-mails released yesterday are personal exchanges between Mr. Steffen and a female employee who discusses dating and masturbation.

“The governor believes his [Mr. Steffen’s] mannerisms on the job, often using state resources, are unacceptable and will not be tolerated in any situation at any time in the Ehrlich administration,” spokesman Paul E. Schurick said yesterday.

In an April 5, 2003, e-mail sent to a list of recipients, Mr. Steffen said Mr. Ehrlich dubbed him “the Prince of Darkness” during his 1994 run for Congress.

“When the governor and the secretary of appointments — on two separate occasions — walk into two different, crowded receptions, see yours truly, and shout ‘Prince of Darkness!’ you know the deal — especially when half the room looks around to see to whom the respective Honorable was referring,” Mr. Steffen said in the e-mail.

Lawrence J. Hogan Jr., Mr. Ehrlich’s appointments secretary, said the administration never has fired a merit employee and has an annual employee turnover rate of about 2 percent.

Mr. Ehrlich, the state’s first Republican governor in more than 30 years, has welcomed the Democrats’ call for an investigation. He said they may find there were more firings during the administration of his predecessor, Parris N. Glendening, a Democrat.

“I think the contrast to the Glendening administration is something that we want to put a spotlight to,” he said.

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