When the man who described himself as "the Prince of Darkness" arrived at the Maryland Department of Human Resources two years ago and placed a Grim Reaper figurine on his desk, longtime employees were baffled.
Though Joseph Steffen had no apparent role in the agency, he would attend meetings, conduct interviews with employees and make extensive notes on a legal pad.
Maryland Gov. Robert Ehrlich, left, with his longtime aid Joseph Steffen. Ehrlich asked for and received Steffen's resignation after Steffen said he discussed rumors of infidelity concerning Baltimore Mayor Martin O'Malley.
(WMAR TV2 via AP)
Then they started getting fired.
"We realized he pretty much was targeting people," said Tom Burgess, a former personnel official in the agency. "He apparently was there to root people out who weren't loyal to the governor."
The man who would himself be forced to resign this week -- for writing e-mails and Web site postings that spread false rumors about the private life of Baltimore Mayor Martin O'Malley -- was not just one of more than 50,000 state employees, as Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. referred to him yesterday.
He was a loyal soldier of Ehrlich's who worked on campaigns for the governor dating back two decades, and who took on a key role in both Ehrlich's transition team and administration, according to numerous sources and Steffen's Web postings.
Steffen, 45, did not answer calls or respond to visitors at his apartment near Baltimore. But in a brief interview Tuesday and in postings on the conservative Web site Free Republic.com, he described his background and embraced a reputation for hardball politics.
Steffen said he has known the governor since 1986, the year Ehrlich (R) ran his first campaign, for the Maryland House of Delegates.
Gerry Brewster, 47, a Baltimore County lawyer who was Ehrlich's Democratic opponent in the 1994 race, said Steffen was at the candidate's side throughout much of the campaign. And his role was widely known. "He was Bob Ehrlich's dirty tricks operative," Brewster said. "He was the hatchet man."
Two years later, during Ehrlich's 1996 reelection campaign, Democrat Connie DeJulius blamed Steffen for a leaflet that described her as a home wrecker. "Steffen was Ehrlich's Lee Atwater," she said.
In fact, Steffen considers himself a disciple of Atwater, the guru of Republican attack politics, and once worked for a political action committee with which Atwater was affiliated. Steffen boasted of his own reputation, writing that he is known in campaign circles as "Dr. Death."
"Part of my unwritten job description is to hurt people," he wrote.
Asked yesterday whether Steffen was his "dirty tricks man," the governor brushed off the question, saying, "That's just silly stuff."
Leading Democratic lawmakers said yesterday that they are most unnerved by Steffen's activities since joining the state payroll, working not only at human resources, but also at the Department of Juvenile Services and the Maryland Insurance Administration. His reach extended even further.
In one instance, Steffen spotted a reimbursement check to an employee of the Governor's Office of Crime Control and Prevention, according to a high-level state official who spoke on the condition of anonymity. On the check was not only the employee's name, Molly Mitchell, but that of her husband, Vincent DeMarco, a prominent lobbyist for progressive causes in Annapolis.
"Out of the blue, I was called in and told I was being let go," said Mitchell, who oversaw programs to combat drunken driving.
Ehrlich disputes the assertions about Steffen, saying this week that he was merely a "troubleshooter."
House Speaker Michael E. Busch (D-Anne Arundel) disagreed. "It was a political cleansing of the state bureaucracy."