Members of Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr.'s administration have repeatedly described the man fired for circulating rumors about Baltimore Mayor Martin O'Malley's private life as merely one among thousands of state bureaucrats.
But a small sampling of electronic mail and an internal memo released yesterday suggest that former aide Joseph Steffen played a more central role in the administration than previously disclosed. E-mail exchanges from late 2003 reveal Steffen as someone with the authority to operate outside the state bureaucracy's normal chain of command. And in some instances, he had the backing of those at the highest levels of state government.
Joseph Steffen has been called "an irrelevant guy" by one top official.
On several occasions, Steffen wrote in e-mails that he was acting "on behalf of the governor," and even though he was assigned to the state Department of Human Resources, he signed his notes with the title special assistant to the governor.
In one e-mail to his then-boss, Byron J. Harris, chief of staff to Human Resources Secretary Christopher J. McCabe, Steffen wrote that he did not need the secretary's approval for any of his activities.
"Though it doesn't need to be said, I have full authority, indeed I am at times directed/mandated, to contact individuals directly regarding meetings and other requests on behalf of the governor," Steffen wrote.
In a terse reply, Harris wrote that he accepted that Steffen had free rein because he was "instructed" to do so by Ehrlich's chief counsel, Jervis S. Finney.
Ehrlich's communication director, Paul E. Schurick, said yesterday that the content of the e-mails did not change his impression of Steffen's role in the Republican administration.
"This was an irrelevant guy," Schurick said. "He was irrelevant to our world."
Steffen did not return voice mail messages seeking comment.
Last month, Steffen was catapulted into the spotlight for posting messages on a conservative Web site that there was an orchestrated effort to "give float" to rumors that O'Malley (D) was having an extramarital affair. O'Malley denied the rumors.
Political rivals of Ehrlich's quickly identified Steffen as an aide involved in dirty tricks during past campaigns. And Steffen himself boasted that he was known in political circles as "the Prince of Darkness."
In the three state jobs he held since Ehrlich took office in 2003, Steffen gained a reputation for ferreting out employees who were not loyal to the new Republican governor and having them fired. Steffen fostered that reputation by placing a figurine of the Grim Reaper on his desk.
The documents, made public by the administration in response to a request under the Maryland Public Information Act, provide a glimpse of that tenure. A broader request for documents, submitted after revelations about the O'Malley rumors, could be made public in the coming week.
In several e-mails released yesterday, Steffen discussed Floyd Blair, the man McCabe appointed to run Baltimore's social services agency over strong objections from O'Malley. The appointment caused a raging political and legal battle between Ehrlich and the mayor in 2003, and eventually it led to Blair's reassignment within the Human Resources Department.