Maryland Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. yesterday brushed off criticism from his political opponents over documents released Friday that they say undercut the governor's earlier assertions that former aide Joseph Steffen had no influence over his administration's hiring and firing decisions.
Ehrlich (R) said concerns by top Maryland Democrats about Steffen's role in the dismissal of a number of state bureaucrats and in political dirty tricks -- such as an effort, described by Steffen, to orchestrate the spread of rumors about Baltimore Mayor Martin O'Malley's personal life -- "are the desperate acts of a dying regime."
In Annapolis, Deputy Counsel Chrys Kefalas, left, and Chief Counsel Jervis S. Finney organize the newly released documents.
(Matthew S. Gunby -- AP)
"Cultural change is not easy," Ehrlich said during his weekly talk show on Baltimore radio station WBAL. "These guys have had a monopoly for 40 years. Now they finally have divided government, two-party government. They have to share the sandbox, and they're not happy about it."
They were the governor's first public statements about the controversy since the documents were released.
During the hour-long broadcast, Ehrlich only briefly addressed statements made by Steffen and his top administrators in roughly 14,500 pages of e-mails and other documents, which were released by attorneys for the governor in response to Maryland Public Records Act requests from The Washington Post and nine other news agencies.
Among the documents was a Feb. 1 e-mail from Steffen to first lady Kendel S. Ehrlich with an offer to "throw himself on the grenade" to head off any article that could be damaging to the governor. On Feb. 7, the first lady replied: "Relax. You'll be fine. We need you." She signed the e-mail "Ken."
The next day, Feb. 8, Ehrlich fired Steffen for posting the rumors about O'Malley. Since then, 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 dismissal of scores of state workers.
The discovery of correspondence between Steffen and the first lady was "the basic non-story of the year," the governor said yesterday.
Democrats said it offered proof that Ehrlich misled the public when he described Steffen as just one of 50,000 state employees. But the governor said yesterday that the e-mail exchange merely shows that his wife is a diligent correspondent with loyal supporters.
"I would hope she would respond in the way she did," he said. "We've known him for years."
Ehrlich also took after Democrats for raising concerns about Steffen's role in firing state workers. Many state employees have described Steffen as a mole who showed up at state agencies, placed a figurine of the Grim Reaper on his desk and began making lists of people to fire.
"A middle-level employee does not have the autonomy to hire or fire anyone," Ehrlich said.
The governor was not asked specific questions about the e-mails, including one sent by his deputy appointments secretary in which she offers to give Steffen a list of employees within the Maryland Insurance Administration, where he worked, who could be fired at the governor's pleasure. The e-mail notes that her boss, Appointments Secretary Lawrence J. Hogan Jr., was disappointed "with the lack of movement" there.
The first disclosure about Steffen's role came Feb. 9, when The Washington Post reported that he had boasted on the Internet of knowing about an orchestrated effort to malign O'Malley by giving "float" to rumors of his infidelity. O'Malley said the rumors were untrue.
That article also disclosed allegations by state employees that Steffen referred to himself as "The Prince of Darkness" and claimed to be making lists of people to fire.
But on the radio yesterday, Ehrlich had his own timeline. He said the initial claim against his administration was that Steffen started the rumor about O'Malley. "Everybody knew how phony that was," he said.
Ehrlich said that when that allegation failed to stick, critics began saying Steffen was targeting Democrats for dismissal.
"Give me a break," Ehrlich said. "We've hired more Democrats than Republicans. Not one merit system employee has been fired. Not one."
House Speaker Michael E. Busch (D-Anne Arundel) called the governor's claims a "complete distortion."
Ehrlich has said that his administration has fired only 284 of the 7,000 employees who are classified as "at will" and that some turnover should be expected with a new administration seeking to implement its own policies. But Democrats say that many more may have resigned, an option Ehrlich aides gave employees who wanted the promise of a neutral referral. They also say they have seen clear evidence that most of those fired are mid-level workers who are not involved in setting policy.
"No one's ever questioned the governor's appointments to executive positions," Busch said in an interview. "Our concerns are about the career civil servants and the job that they do, the integrity of the Maryland workforce and an orchestrated purge to remove those employees from the workforce."