Wednesday, March 9, 2005

ANNAPOLIS — House Speaker Michael E. Busch yesterday appointed the speaker pro tem to a joint committee probing firings by Republican Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr.

“Today we are making an announcement from the House that we are going to join the Senate investigation,” he said after naming Delegate Adrienne A. Jones to the committee.

Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr., Calvert and Prince George’s Democrat, said two weeks ago that the Senate would conduct an independent investigation into the actions of Ehrlich aide Joseph F. Steffen Jr. and others within the administration, following the close of the General Assembly session in mid-April.

“We just want to join the Miller investigation in a cooperative effort,” said Mr. Busch, Anne Arundel Democrat.

Mrs. Jones, a Baltimore County Democrat, will work with Sen. Brian E. Frosh, a Montgomery County Democrat.

Democratic lawmakers are investigating Mr. Steffen, who is said to have referred to himself as “Dr. Death” because he sought state employees not loyal to Mr. Ehrlich and fired them.

They also are concerned because Mr. Steffen used e-mail and Internet chat rooms to spread marital-infidelity rumors about Baltimore Mayor Martin O’Malley, a potential Democratic candidate for governor in 2006.

Upon learning about the Internet activity, Mr. Ehrlich fired Mr. Steffen, who has worked in several state agencies, most recently as a communications director in the Maryland Insurance Administration.

Mr. Busch said the joint committee would determine whether an independent investigator would be assigned to look into the matter and whether the investigator would have legislative oversight, subpoena power and the ability to conduct audits.

“We don’t want to make this a witch hunt, but we do want to be responsive,” Mr. Busch said. “Every administration has a right to bring in their own people at the highest levels of government management. But there are numerous reports of the administration terminating employees who are highly qualified career civil servants. Their careers should not be jeopardized because of a change in any administration.”

Mrs. Jones agreed.

“Our goal is to ensure that career public servants are not terminated based on political affiliation,” she said.

Mr. Ehrlich, Maryland’s first Republican governor in more than 30 years, yesterday urged Democrats to “bring it on,” when asked about the probe. He also said those investigating may find there was more turnover 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,” Mr. Ehrlich said. “We don’t welcome it. We want to be part of it. We want to help the speaker shed light on the situation and give all the information to the people of Maryland.”

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.

Senate Minority Whip Andrew P. Harris, Harford and Baltimore counties Republican, said the probe is clearly political.

“Whenever the leadership of the House and the Senate get together and call for an investigation of the governor, it has got to be politically motivated,” he said. “All I can say is they have very short memories. They don’t remember that under all the other governors there was a system of patronage.”

Mr. Miller said the primary focus of the probe is to protect lower-level, state employees from “future administrations.”

“This is not about protecting political patronage or enabling political patronage,” he said.

In 1975, state lawmakers passed a resolution for a joint committee to investigate spying by Baltimore police. In the mid-1980s, lawmakers formed an independent commission to investigate a savings and loan crisis. However, a legislative mandate to investigate the administration is unprecedented in Maryland.

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