Ehrlich Aides' 'Death List' Guided Firings of Md. Workers, Panel Told

Former personnel official Tom Burgess testified that some workers were fired solely because they are Democrats.
Former personnel official Tom Burgess testified that some workers were fired solely because they are Democrats. (By Matthew S. Gunby -- Associated Press)
By Matthew Mosk
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, December 14, 2005

Top officials in Maryland Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr.'s administration ordered the dismissal of a succession of mid-level state workers, plucked from a sheet of paper that an aide called the "death list," a former state personnel official told top lawmakers yesterday.

The targeted employees were fired, in some instances, solely because they were Democrats, and in each case to make room for Republican political appointees, said Tom Burgess, who yesterday became the first former state employee to testify under oath before the panel investigating Ehrlich's personnel practices.

The panel was convened this fall to examine complaints that Ehrlich (R) dispatched aides to reach into the state bureaucracy and fire workers considered disloyal. Ehrlich aides reiterated yesterday that they view the probe as a partisan witch hunt, exposing nothing more than the natural turnover when a new administration takes office. They noted that Burgess had been demoted before leaving his state post and now works for the city of Baltimore, where the mayor plans to run for governor.

Democrats said yesterday's testimony offered fresh evidence that Ehrlich abused a system that gave him discretion over 6,000 state workers serving in "at will" positions.

Burgess, a registered Republican who spent 14 years in state service, including five as director of personnel for the Maryland Department of Human Resources, gave a detailed account of the process by which more than a dozen of his colleagues -- mostly veteran employees in non-policymaking roles -- were fired.

He became emotional at one point during more than two hours of testimony, when describing how he was forced to take a five-grade demotion because, he said, he tried to help a Democrat in the office get promoted. He said Human Resources Secretary Christopher J. McCabe came to his house and told him to accept the demotion or leave his job at a time when he was trying to juggle a new mortgage and college tuition for his daughter.

"I told him, 'I find this highly objectionable. I'm a career employee. I've been here 14 years,' " Burgess told the panel.

After the hearing, Senate Minority Leader J. Lowell Stoltzfus (R-Somerset) called Burgess "emotionally very effective" but also not very credible, given that he would naturally be disgruntled.

"He didn't show us anything" to corroborate his sworn testimony, Stoltzfus said. "Whether these things went on or not, we just have his word."

Republicans also questioned Burgess's credibility because he recently gave campaign donations to his boss, Mayor Martin O'Malley (D), who is seeking to challenge Ehrlich in the 2006 governor's race. Burgess, who also donated to the Republican National Committee, said he has never discussed the case with O'Malley and was testifying only "because it's the right thing to do."

More than anything, his testimony offered a window into the tumultuous world of state government immediately after Ehrlich's election as Maryland's first Republican governor in more than three decades.

Burgess described how some workers received termination letters from Ehrlich's transition team -- hand-delivered by a man in a trench coat. And how two Ehrlich aides took offices on the 10th floor of his department's headquarters, alarming workers there.

One aide, Michelle Lane, had a list of about 20 names, with the initials "DL" next to them, Burgess said. He said he asked her what "DL" meant, and she replied, "Death List." Another aide, Joseph Steffen, kept Grim Reaper and Darth Vader figurines on his desk.

"People were actually terrified of him," Burgess said.

Ehrlich fired Steffen in February after the aide acknowledged spreading rumors about O'Malley.

Burgess also described job interviews for Ehrlich loyalists. One, up for a job as a deputy computer technician, arrived with the GOP state chairman as his reference and offered the interview panelists tickets to a $1,000-a-person GOP fundraiser, he said.

Sen. Brian E. Frosh (D-Montgomery), who pushed for the probe, said he believed Burgess was a "highly credible" and effective witness. "Apart from the individual injustices, you can see that what took place had an extremely harmful impact on the workforce," he said.

But Norris P. West, a human resources spokesman, said he believes Burgess gave a one-sided description of the tough judgments the Ehrlich administration faced.

"They wanted to infuse the department with fresh blood while trying to maintain the institutional memory that keeps the department functioning," said West, who noted that he is a registered independent. "That was their prerogative."

© 2005 The Washington Post Company