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Ehrlich Alleges 'Blackmail' By Former State Employee

By Matthew Mosk
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, March 25, 2005; Page A01

Maryland Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. accused a former state employee yesterday of trying to "blackmail" him. The woman involved said she was trying to protect herself against a retaliatory "whisper campaign" by the administration that could cost her a job.

And after a winter of partisanship and allegations of political dirty tricks, the tension ratcheted up another level when Ehrlich (R) stood in front of the State House and charged that there was a campaign at work to make his administration look bad.

Outside the State House, Ehrlich speaks to reporters at a news conference, complaining that a former employee has been trying to "blackmail" him. (Matthew S. Gunby -- AP)

The Washington Post's Matthew Mosk discusses the blackmail accusations by Maryland Gov. Robert Ehrlich with washingtonpost.com's Jonathan Forsythe.
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"We really want to know about any political orchestration" by Democrats, Ehrlich told reporters.

The latest accusations still involve Joseph Steffen, the longtime aide whom Ehrlich fired last month for circulating rumors about a political rival, Baltimore Mayor Martin O'Malley (D). Ehrlich dismissed Steffen immediately after learning from The Washington Post that Steffen had boasted on the Internet about spreading gossip about O'Malley's marriage.

Ehrlich said at the time "I will not put up with this, bottom line." Yesterday, he suggested that Steffen had been set up and asked reporters to find out how that happened.

As evidence, he released an e-mail from Michelle Lane, a registered nurse who held mid-level posts on Ehrlich's transition team and in his administration before being fired last summer. In the Feb. 13 e-mail, Lane accused the governor's aides of trying to smear her, and she threatened to distribute damaging correspondence she received from Steffen if Ehrlich's staff did not leave her alone. She included one sample, in which Steffen describes efforts to "start cleaning house" at a state agency.

Ehrlich told reporters, "Getting a blackmail e-mail . . . that was certainly interesting."

Lane declined to respond to the governor's accusations. But her attorney called them obscene. He described Lane as a Republican whistle-blower who wrote the e-mail in desperation after it appeared that Ehrlich's staff was trying to get her fired from her new job, teaching a nursing class in Towson.

Ehrlich's comments yesterday marked the latest twist in a story that has roiled Annapolis politics and intensified partisan differences that have marred the 90-day General Assembly session. Even before the Steffen story broke, there was a controversy over Ehrlich's annual State of the State address, in which the governor scolded Democratic lawmakers for not showing him proper respect. There also have been tussles over Democratic senators' refusal to confirm scores of gubernatorial appointments, and there have been allegations of a Republican purge of seasoned state employees.

When the news of dirty tricks emerged, top Democratic lawmakers went on the offensive, pledging a full investigation into Steffen's activities.

At a mid-afternoon news conference, Ehrlich was defiant, saying of the probe, "Bring it on."

In his brief remarks, Ehrlich did not directly accuse Lane of being a source of news reports about Steffen. But his aides suggested that Lane was a disgruntled former state employee who had a motive to tar the governor. They released a letter sent by one of her friends, urging the governor to reconsider her termination. And they made public the uncropped version of a now-familiar photo that shows Ehrlich and Steffen standing together, the governor's arm over Steffen's shoulder. In the uncropped version, Lane stands with the two men, and Ehrlich's other arm is over her shoulder.

Democrats called Ehrlich's new tack a ham-handed attempt to divert attention from his own actions. Lane's attorney, Daniel Clements, said, "It is grossly disturbing that the governor is trying to blame his problems, and his errors, on the person who has attempted to bring these matters to public light."

Clements's description of Lane as a whistle-blower is bolstered by memorandums and e-mails she wrote to top state officials while serving as an Ehrlich appointee in the Maryland Department of Human Resources and the Office of Children, Youth and Families. In one September 2003 memo to M. Teresa Garland, the special secretary for children, youth and families, Lane described how she uncovered violations of a court decree that required the state to limit the number of foster children assigned to each state social worker.

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