Washington Post staff writer Matthew Mosk was online Wednesday, March 16, at 1 p.m. ET to examine the hiring and firing decisions of Maryland Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr.'s administration.
Maryland Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. over the weekend 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, the Post's Matthew Mosk reported in Sunday's article, "Ehrlich Discounts Steffen's Influence."
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."
Recent Post coverage:
Maryland Senate Delays Ehrlich Appointments (Post, March 15)
Ehrlich Discounts Steffen's Influence (Post, March 13)
When Ehrlich's Day Needs Saving, He Looks to Hamilton (Post, March 13)
Steffen E-Mails Imply Closer Link to Ehrlich (Post, March 12)
Ehrlich Takes a Hit on Port (Post, March 11)
Ehrlich's Ex-Aide Targeted (Post, March 9)
The transcript follows.
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Matthew Mosk: Hello,
With just four weeks left in the legislative session, the partisan politics in Annapolis is really starting to heat up. Much of the focus has been on the state workforce, and the direction it's being taken by Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. I'm eager to hear your thoughts, and happy to answer your questions, about this and other subjects.
The Governor has repeatedly characterized Mr. Steffen as a "rogue operator" and just "1 of 50,000" state employees. These statements --according to your in-depth reporting -- appear to be grossly untruthful and false. Do you think that the Governor will soon restate the nature of his relationship with Mr. Steffen - and apologize for his misleading remarks? If not, will the Washington Post continue to report on the Governor's inaccurate and misleading statements?
Matthew Mosk: The question of what Joe Steffen's role was in the Ehrlich administration is definitely one that's of interest to folks in Annapolis. And it's an important one. Was this guy trying to "give float" to rumors about Baltimore Mayor Martin O'Malley on his own? Or on someone else's orders? Was he going into state agencies with a Grim Reaper figurine and telling people he had the power to get them fired because he was a quirky guy, as Ehrlich's aides are saying? Or was he at the departments of human resources and juvenile justice on a mission? This, I strongly suspect, will be the focus of more reporting from us and from others as we try to answer those questions...
With this scandal growing closer and closer to Ehrlich's inner circle, is it possible that Lt. Gov. Stelle will abandon what many see to be sinking ship and run for Senate in 2006?
Matthew Mosk: To the contrary, I think there are many in Annapolis who see Lt. Gov. Steele as one of the Republican Party's strongest prospects for the U.S. Senate race. Of course, it's too early to know whether he will give it a try, or if others out there might surface who no one has thought about.
If it turns out ONLY political appointees were fired, do you think the "scandalous" nature of Ehrlich's hatchet man will be seriously dimmed?
Also, had Ehrlich been more outfront about a vetting process for dismissing political appointees at the beginning of his term, do you think the Democrats would have little ammo with the Steffen affair on this issue?
Matthew Mosk: These are very good questions.
I think this issue of, who exactly was being fired, is one that will be the focus of a legislative probe in April. Ehrlich has asserted that he has every right to reshape government. The question is, were the people who were being dismissed policy makers, or state workers whose jobs were apolitical.
I know that high level government folks often serve at the mercy of whoever is in power politically, but it does look like Gov. Ehrlich and his "Prince of Darkness" went beyond what is considered normal in rooting out people they weren't fond of politically. This is reprehensible, no matter who did it. These mid and lower level employees have families that depend on them. To fire them like this is simply unacceptable. It's beyond reprehensible. It's immoral.
Matthew Mosk: That's certainly the position that many Democratic lawmakers have taken. Ehrlich's folks strongly disagree, though, saying they were doing exactly what Democrats have done in Annapolis for years. The more the legislature is able to learn about who was fired and why, the better chance we'll have of knowing whether this was a run-of-the mill party change over, or something out of the ordinary.
Who investigates the investigator, Jervis Finney?
Matthew Mosk: There's a great deal of interest among Democrats in what Jervis Finney's investigation will reveal. The governor tapped Mr. Finney, who is Ehrlich's chief counsel, to conduct an investigation into the rumors being circulated by Joe Steffen. Finney is a fascinating guy. He's a former U.S. Attorney who prosecuted a past Maryland governor for corruption, and whose ties to Ehrlich date back to the governor's high school years. So many Democrats wonder if he will be able to oversee a truly independent investigation.
Have the number who Serve at the pleasure positions increased since the Governor took office and if so have you talked to AFSCME or any of the other sole bargaining agents about the loss of bargaining unit positions? If the growth came from supervisory/managerial positions there is no issue, but if they came from bargaining unit positions the growth is undercutting the number of potential union employees who traditionally do not support the Republican party. Just another angle to consider.
Matthew Mosk: That's a good question.
We know that under the previous governor, Parris Glendening, the number of "at will" positions in state government grew by a significant number. Supposedly the point was to help the state attract better qualified applicants for professional jobs. But now that the number of "at will" employees is close to 7,000, that has meant many people who thought their jobs were safe, are in fact subject to dismissal with little of the civil service protections they expected.
Silver Spring, Md.:
Allow me to preface this by saying that I'm a lifelong registered Democrat and lifelong resident of Maryland.
Some of the firings, and the antics of Steffen, Gov. Bob Ehrlich's longtime political friend and (apparently) his assistant, have been, well, ugly.
BUT. The reality in Maryland state government is that many jobs serve at the pleasure of the governor, or at the pleasure of his cabinet appointees, in other words, they are not "classified" (or, as the federal government calls them, civil service positions.
So a governor has the legal right to dismiss a worker in a non-classified job, and put someone else in that position. I'm not saying that this is right or wrong, just that this is how the system was set up in the past (probably by a Democratic governor and Democraticly-dominated general assembly).
And quite a few of Gov. Bob Ehrlich's personnel moves have, in my opinion, been superb.
So my question is this -- what's all the fuss about?
Matthew Mosk: The fuss is not about the governor's ability to appoint policy makers. Where Democrats have raised questions is with the mid level folks who were being dismissed, they say, to make room for political patronage hires. An example the Democrats are using often is the decision to hire a guy at the Port of Baltimore whose only prior work, other than on Ehrlich's congressional staff, was as a professional ice dancer. They say the result is the work of the Port has suffered. And that should be of concern to Marylanders.
The mid-level firings and replacement with Ehrlich's people is having an adverse effect at all levels of state employment. Not only for those wrongly removed from their jobs, but also for those of us that are forced to deal with the Ehrlich replacements!
Matthew Mosk: Well this is another aspect to it -- is there a level of fear among state employees that failing to show loyalty to the Ehrlich administration could cost them their jobs. If these people are in jobs where they're being asked to render objective opinions about, say, the performance of a regulated utility company during a hurricane, or the performance of an insurance carrier during a flood, you'd like to think they will not be subject to political influence. Ehrlich's folks say they're not. But Democrats are asking that question.
I worked for the state government and I know first-hand that Ehrlich's "Grim Reaper" was sent around to agencies to fire Democrats. I was hired by Democrats and I was highly regarded and highly successful at my job. The "Grim Reaper" did not care about that. His job was to do "political firings" and make room for political hirings.
Ask Gov. Ehrlich to please be truthful and admit what some of us insiders know. I am not mad or have no plans to sue for my job (I too was politically fired) but I feel disrespected by the continued dishonesty.
Up until this point, I had some respect for Ehrlich and even during his Gub campaign I attended some of his functions. From this point on .... "forget it!!"
Matthew Mosk: If what you say is true, I know there are folks, including me, who would like to hear your story.
How do you think the Governor will do this session?
Matthew Mosk: This personnel debate has clouded things a bit, but the governor has put forward a number of proposals that appear headed for passage, including teen driving restrictions, a bill to get at the problem of witness intimidation, and some other programs centered on the welfare of children. His initiatives this year really broke from his earlier approached, which was more focused on divisive concepts such as slot machine gambling and medical malpractice reform.
Montgomery Village, Md.:
I have seen a recent story in the Post about localities opposed to slots considering changing zoning laws to prevent slots from coming to their county. What's the status of the Maryland slots bill? How likely is it to pass?
Matthew Mosk: All signals are that slots will not be legalized by the legislature this year. Though I will say, anything can happen, even on the session's final day.
In a nutshell, the House and Senate are divided over how many machines to allow, and where to put them. These, it turns out, are very tough conflicts to resolve.
Most of the Democrats in the House delegation seem interested in the Sarbanes seat -- which ones do you think will commit to the race?
Matthew Mosk: This is the guessing game that has captivated state lawmakers in Annapolis. There is a sense that Reps. Chris Van Hollen, Ben Cardin, and Dutch Ruppersberger are all very interested in the senate seat. The combination of who decides to run could wind up having a major role in determining who wins the primary. Both geographic and race questions factor in to this.
Is the head of the port authority really as important as some people want us to believe? Can't the port run without one person. Is it fair to condemn the firing without knowing who the replacement is?
Matthew Mosk: I'm no expert on the Port. But we have been told that the person in charge actually is very important, because so much of the shipping industry is built on personal relationships. The real issue with the Port, though is whether the Port director resigned because the place was being hurt by hiring and firing decisions being made at a higher level -- at the state Department of Transportation.
Is it safe to say Ehrlich is a love him or hate him governor? Seems like his personal style attracts a good deal more attention (and criticism), than say Warner.
Matthew Mosk: Many people see the most significant fall out from the Joe Steffen affair being its potential to redefine our perceptions of him. Ehrlich great strength is that he is widely viewed as a charming, funny, likeable guy who also happens to be running the state. Many things he's done -- like his tourism TV ads -- help cement that image. The question is, do Steffen's actions show us another side to Ehrlich?
Why won't you report about all of the positions that family members and close associates of Senate President Miller hold in agencies throughout the state government?
Why does Senate President Miller think he should have influence over the State Board of Elections?
Matthew Mosk: Ehrlich's aides have hinted that this question will be the one they ask if Democrats push an inquiry into personnel practices any further: How about the Democrats? What kind of patronage decisions did they make when they were in control of the governor's office? I think it's likely the media will examine that question in coming weeks, when trying to put Ehrlich's actions in perspective.
During the state budget process this year, the General Assembly has targeted numerous state employees for elimination for what look to be political reasons. Given the attention paid to the Steffen story, I was wondering if the Post was planning to apply the same amount of attention to the General Assembly.
Matthew Mosk: The answer to this is yes. The General Assembly is looking at cutting positions, and we are following those efforts closely. Of course, the legislature's power to actually fire people is not nearly comparable to the governor's. Only the governor can add to the budget, which means any time the legislature makes a cut, the governor has the power to restore it.
What is the status of the "official" inquiry into the Steffen scandal? How vulnerable is Ehrlich's career to this fallout?
Matthew Mosk: There are two "official" inquiries that have been discussed. One is being conducted by Jervis Finney. We have not been updated on its status in recent days. To the best of my knowledge, it is still ongoing. The other is the one that's been proposed by the legislature. It is supposed to get underway in April, after the General Assembly completes its 90 day session.
Silver Spring, Md.:
The slots issue is taking a bit of a back seat to the "prince of Darkness" these days, but it will definitely heat up pretty intensely before the end of the session. As far as I can tell, the House did an outstanding job of approving a bill that will be unacceptable to the Senate and the Governor, thus killing slots again for another session. If this governor cannot get a slots bill through in this session, does he stand any chance of reelection? Slots was the basis of his candidacy, and the scandals of his administration are fairly significant in the face of a fairly empty legislative record.
Matthew Mosk: I think you're right that the slots issue has not gone away. If the governor fails to win passage of a slots bill, it could become a campaign issue for his opponent. The question will be: Can he do what he promises to do? Of course, the governor can flip this issue on the Democrats, accusing them of obstructing him. The side that's better at getting their message across will probably prevail.
Thanks for being here today.
Who is most likely to succeed Sarbanes?
Will Doug Duncan run for Senate?
Matthew Mosk: These are the questions that will be the source of interest for the next few months. For the record, Duncan's camp is telling us the answer is 'No,' he will not run for Senate. He and Baltimore Mayor Martin O'Malley appear intent on running for governor. At this point, with Mfume having announced for Senate, and several congressmen expressing interest, the Democratic Senate field looks no more inviting for Duncan than does the gubernatorial one. He'd have a tough fight either way. And he clearly wants to be governor.
Fair Haven, Md.:
In looking at the Department of Transportation and its branches: Mass Transit, Motor Vehicles, State Highways, Aviation Administration, and the Port. Which three create a yearly operating surplus and which two are subsidized by the State?
Mass transit is obviously the first answer; the second is the Port. Why can't we hold the Port to the same standard as the Aviation Administration? Is the Port really doing that well?
Matthew Mosk: My understanding is that the Port creates tens of thousands of jobs and contributes significantly to the state's economy. There is also some hope that increased cruise line traffic could help boost tourism visits to Baltimore. All of this means it cannot be overlooked, and its success is important to everyone who lives in the state. How it stacks up against other agencies is an interesting question, but does not change the fact that it needs to be run well.
Silver Spring, Md.:
The Post's recent coverage of the O'Malley unfaithfulness rumors seems to be driven exclusively by outraged Democrats such as Frosh and Busch. Why no coverage of the fact that this rumor has been around for a long time and, I'm told was "given float" by many Statehouse Democrats as well as Republicans. Are you working to unmask MD4Bush who seemed to have uncanny advance knowledge of the stories the Post was working on?
Matthew Mosk: Rumors are rampant in political circles, of course. What made this story interesting to us, I think, is the suggestion by Steffen that there was an orchestrated effort to get this specific rumor out there. When I asked Steffen about this directly, his answer was, "No comment."
As for MD4Bush, we have reported that the identity of this person, who posted on the FreeRepublic web site, is not known to us.
Do you think that the CEO of the Washington Post knows what you are doing on the Internet at home or in the office?
Why does the Washington Post want the reader to believe that Governor Ehrlich was aware of what Joe Steffan was doing?
Matthew Mosk: I don't think anyone has suggested that the governor read Steffen's e-mails. But the content of Steffen's e-mails tell us a lot about the people he was in regular contact with, and what they discussed. The fact that Steffen corresponded frequently with folks in the governor's inner circle, including the First Lady, was, we though, very informative about his stature within the administration.
Adams Morgan, Washington, D.C.:
... "He's a former U.S. Attorney who prosecuted a past Maryland governor for corruption ..." Is this the man who took down my Marvin?
On a more serious note, I think Duncan is a great CE and would be a good governor or Senator, but he's got an uphill battle in front of him on the "Wow" factor and sadly these days in politics, the "wow" factor seems to be what wins.
Matthew Mosk: That's one thing that will make the 2006 primary so fascinating. Remember, many people thought the 'Wow' factor would secure the 8th District congressional seat for Mark Shriver, over Chris Van Hollen.
Matthew Mosk: Well, thank you, all for a fascinating dialogue. These are issues which will no doubt be in the news over the next few weeks, and I hope will hold your interest.