When Greg Maddalone took a management job with the Maryland Transit Administration two years ago, he was not there to worry about bus routes or train service, and that much was later made clear by the T-shirt he draped over a chair in his office.
It was from the television show "The Apprentice," and it read: "You're fired."
Maddalone says his time at the Transit Administration was spent "evaluating programs." But his co-workers say he is one of several former campaign workers for Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. (R) who were planted in the state bureaucracy to draw up lists of people to fire.
That is also how employees at the Public Service Commission described Craig Chesek, a onetime Ehrlich congressional aide who came to the regulatory agency intent on "cleaning house," according to an internal e-mail written by Joseph Steffen, another Ehrlich aide linked to such firings. Steffen was ousted this month after boasting of a plot to spread rumors about the private life of Baltimore Mayor Martin O'Malley (D). The mayor has denied the rumors.
The three aides -- all of whom worked on past Ehrlich campaigns and served in Ehrlich's district congressional offices -- are actors in what Democrats say has been an orchestrated effort to circumvent traditional rules for hiring and firing state workers.
"When you have political operatives with figurines of the grim reaper on their desk waging war against people they perceive as being disloyal, it causes an enormous brain drain," said Del. Peter Franchot (D-Montgomery). "It is a despicable way to treat longtime public servants."
Ehrlich's appointments secretary, Lawrence Hogan Jr., called that nonsense. The Maryland Constitution grants Ehrlich vast power to fill "at will" about 7,000 jobs across the state bureaucracy. And as the state's first Republican governor in 36 years, his election naturally brought more turnover than has been seen in decades, Hogan said.
"People voted for change," he added.
But ever since Ehrlich deputies began firing large blocks of workers at state agencies, top lawmakers have questioned not only the motives behind the terminations but also the brusque manner in which they were carried out.
Lawmakers were upset when five professional staff members at the Public Service Commission were ushered out of their Baltimore offices by armed guards. And they were deeply disturbed to hear about tactics used by Steffen -- who kept the grim reaper figurine on his desk -- during his stints at three state agencies.
The state has been sued at least six times since Ehrlich took office by workers who alleged they were fired for no reason other than their political affiliation, which is illegal. The state settled for $100,000 one such case, in which a Democratic politician was dismissed from his engineering job. It lost a second case, involving a utility regulator, which is now on appeal.
Key legislators, including House Speaker Michael E. Busch (D-Anne Arundel) and Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee Chairman Brian E. Frosh (D-Montgomery), decried the firings as politically motivated and have called for formal hearings.
Many of those ousted "are mid-level bureaucrats, who don't make policy, who should not be subject to the whims of some political apparatchik," Frosh said last week.
Two state transportation employees who were fired said they personally observed Maddalone's work and believe that he was part of such an operation.