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Accusations About Firings Are 'Lies,' Ehrlich Says

Conditions Set on Support Of Legislative Investigation

By Matthew Mosk
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, March 18, 2005; Page B01

Maryland Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. (R) yesterday dismissed as "lies" accusations that his administration has fired state workers for political reasons, and said he will embrace a legislative inquiry into his personnel practices only if he can dictate the ground rules.

Ehrlich's statements came in an undated, three-page letter to House and Senate leaders that his staff released to the media. In the letter, the governor says repeatedly that no one has produced evidence that his administration has fired "career civil service employees."

Ehrlich contends that the legislature also should look at hiring and firing in the past. (Matthew S. Gunby -- AP)

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"They have charged the administration of wholesale and indiscriminate firings of state employees, charges that lack a single fact to back them up," Ehrlich wrote.

Top Democrats said that they have produced scores of examples of mid-level bureaucrats who have been dismissed from state service and that they were baffled by the governor's statement.

"I can give you a bunch," said Sen. Brian E. Frosh (D-Montgomery), who proceeded to name employees dismissed from the Public Service Commission, the People's Counsel, the Department of Natural Resources and the Department of Transportation.

"It's amazing that he would contend they're not firing people," Frosh said.

Frosh said a formal legislative inquiry became warranted, in his view, when lawmakers began reading news accounts about Joseph Steffen, a longtime Ehrlich aide who called himself "The Prince of Darkness," placed a figurine of the Grim Reaper on his desk and claimed to be compiling a list of people to fire.

Concerns escalated, Frosh said, when they learned that another former Ehrlich campaign staff member, Gregory Maddalone, hung a T-shirt in his Transportation Department office that declared, "You're Fired!" Workers in that agency said Maddalone, too, told employees that he was compiling a list of people to fire.

The state recently paid $100,000 to settle a lawsuit with Vincent Gardina, a Baltimore County Council member who alleged that he was fired from his state job because he is a Democrat. And last week, the state produced e-mails written by Steffen in which he asked for the names of all "at will" employees at the Maryland Insurance Administration -- the third state agency he had worked for during two years of state employment.

Frosh and other top Democratic lawmakers said such information, to them, was persuasive that an inquiry was warranted.

Ehrlich says in his letter that he is "so proud of this personnel record, in fact, that I welcome an opportunity to share it with the General Assembly and the public." But the letter says the inquiry would be viewed as "a bitter and rancorous attack on the administration" if hearings were conducted by lawmakers who previously "have openly accused me and my administration of misconduct."

Ehrlich's letter also says that any inquiry should look at the way legislators and past administrations have used political influence to make hiring decisions.

House Speaker Michael E. Busch (D-Anne Arundel) said that he was pleased the governor has embraced the idea of a legislative inquiry into the issue but that he was not about to allow Ehrlich to dictate the terms of the probe.

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