A week before Joseph Steffen was revealed as the author of Internet postings about the personal life of Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr.'s top political rival, he wrote to the governor's wife with an offer to "throw myself on the grenade" to head off a scandal.
First lady Kendel S. Ehrlich replied, "Relax. You'll be fine. We need you," and signed the e-mail "Ken."
Roughly 14,500 pages of e-mails and other documents were released by attorneys for the governor yesterday. More could be released Monday.
(Matthew S. Gunby -- The Washington Post)
The next day, Feb. 8, Ehrlich fired Steffen for posting the rumors, and the longtime aide who called himself "the Prince of Darkness" has become the focus of two investigations -- about political dirty tricks and his alleged role in the politically motivated dismissals of scores of state workers.
The exchange between Steffen and Kendel Ehrlich was found in roughly 14,500 pages of e-mails and other documents released by attorneys for the governor yesterday in response to Maryland Public Records Act requests from The Washington Post and nine other news agencies.
The stacks of documents, quickly pored over and sorted by reporters from a dozen news agencies working in concert, appear to do nothing to illuminate Steffen's boast on the Internet: that he knew of an orchestrated effort to "give float" to rumors that Baltimore Mayor Martin O'Malley had an extramarital affair. O'Malley has denied that.
They do, however, speak to claims by several fired employees that Steffen was involved in efforts to purge state agencies of political foes. In a June 2004 note to the governor's deputy appointments secretary, for instance, Steffen asked for a list in his new agency, the independent Maryland Insurance Administration, of the employees who could be fired at will.
"I realize this isn't officially what I do any longer," he informed Diane M. Baker, the appointments official. "But . . . there are some things here I don't see being changed without a shove coming from your end."
In the reply the next day, Baker said she would share the list with Steffen and added that her boss, Appointments Secretary Lawrence J. Hogan Jr., told the head of the agency where Steffen worked that he was "disappointed with the lack of movement" there.
In a May 2004 note to Greg Jones, a policy adviser to Ehrlich (R), Steffen said he consulted regularly with the appointments office and added: "Personnel IS policy, to quote Ronald Reagan."
While Ehrlich aides continued yesterday to describe Steffen as an "irrelevant" mid-level functionary, the e-mails present him as someone who was on familiar terms with the governor and his closest aides.
In an April 2003 e-mail, Steffen said it was Ehrlich who gave him the "Prince of Darkness" moniker "during his 1994 run for congress." And he described occasions when both Ehrlich and Hogan shouted, "Prince of Darkness!" when Steffen entered a crowded room.
The emerging public record is starting to make Ehrlich's continued effort to distance himself from Steffen look "silly," said Sen. Brian E. Frosh (D-Montgomery), who is expected to help lead a legislative probe into Steffen's possible role in dirty tricks and personnel matters.
"It's the Groucho Marx test," Frosh said. "It's 'Who are you going to believe, me or your own eyes?' "
Ehrlich's chief counsel, Jervis S. Finney, said the contents of the material amount to "hoo-ha."