Maryland Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. and his aides went on the offensive yesterday, asserting that longtime aide Joseph Steffen acted alone in propagating rumors about Baltimore Mayor Martin O'Malley and calling accusations that Steffen participated in a purge of Democrats in state agencies "a lie."
Ehrlich (R) said he was not concerned about a possible investigation into Steffen's activities by the General Assembly. "Let that investigation go where that investigation leads," he said at a news conference. "We welcome it."
Gov. Ehrlich says he welcomes an investigation of the Steffen case by the assembly.
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Ehrlich also said "everybody fully understands" that Steffen acted alone.
The governor ousted Steffen on Tuesday night, shortly after a reporter presented him with private e-mails that Steffen had sent discussing his role in spreading rumors about O'Malley (D), a possible gubernatorial rival next year.
"This was one person doing something he shouldn't have done," Ehrlich said yesterday. "I don't know how many ways I can say it. It was wrong."
Asked to explain how Ehrlich knows that Steffen acted by himself, spokesman Greg Massoni said: "Joe Steffen has given his word. . . . The governor gave his word."
Later, Ehrlich's appointments secretary defended the Republican administration's employment practices. "The Ehrlich administration has never fired a single state employee for being a Democrat," said Lawrence J. Hogan. "Not one."
Sen. Brian E. Frosh (D-Montgomery), who has called for a broad investigation into the firings, was unswayed. "They're reaching down, and they're firing people who are just engineers, biologists and actuaries," Frosh said. "It's illegal if they fire somebody for being a Democrat."
The double salvo from Ehrlich came three days after revelations that Steffen was involved in spreading rumors about the Baltimore mayor. Steffen, who described himself in writings and to a reporter as "the Prince of Darkness," also worked in various state agencies under Ehrlich. Former co-workers have said he worked to "root out" employees not loyal to the governor.
Ehrlich chief counsel Jervis S. Finney said the investigation into Steffen's activities is continuing. Finney acknowledged that as the governor's counsel, he is not obligated to divulge information if the governor orders him not to. But he said requests for information about Steffen's activities under the state's Public Records Act would be "fully honored."
In addition to Ehrlich's internal investigation, Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr. (D-Calvert) and Speaker of the House Michael E. Busch (D-Anne Arundel) are considering whether to order a legislative probe into not only the rumors but also the state's hiring and firing practices.
Yesterday, Hogan said that of the 7,000 state employees who serve at the pleasure of the governor, 284 have been dismissed -- about 4 percent, Hogan said.
"Democrats have been saying that the Ehrlich administration is indiscriminately firing state employees for being Democrats," Hogan said. "That is a lie."
Frosh pointed to the case of Vincent J. Gardina, a Democratic member of the Baltimore County Council who was fired from an engineering position at the Maryland Environmental Service.
Gardina sued the state and recently won a $100,000 settlement.
"Vincent Gardina is, I think, the poster child for this," Frosh said. "They paid him 100,000 bucks, and his allegation was that they fired him for political reasons. You don't get 100,000 bucks unless you've got them dead to rights."
The state has been taken to court at least six times in the past two years over what were alleged to be politically motivated job terminations.
A judge last year ordered the state to rehire Chrys Wilson, one of five staff members at the Public Service Commission who were fired in a single afternoon. She is collecting a salary while on administrative leave; her case is on appeal.