Md. Cabinet Member Says He Objected to Aide
Wednesday, December 21, 2005
A Cabinet secretary for Maryland Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. testified yesterday that he was forced to invite into his agency the man who called himself "The Prince of Darkness" and quickly became troubled by the aide's efforts to target employees for termination.
Secretary of Human Resources Christopher J. McCabe said he twice raised objections in late 2003 about Joseph Steffen's mission -- including once in a letter he had the department's top lawyer write to Ehrlich's chief counsel, in which he complained that Steffen was rifling through an employee's payroll records.
Steffen "made me uncomfortable and others uncomfortable," McCabe said while under oath before the legislative committee investigating the Republican administration's personnel practices. "I probably should have been more decisive and said, 'Enough is enough.' "
Steffen was fired by Ehrlich in February for spreading rumors about a political rival.
McCabe became the first current administration official to appear before the special committee reviewing complaints that Ehrlich dispatched aides to reach into the state bureaucracy and fire workers considered disloyal. Ehrlich aides have said they view the probe as a partisan witch hunt by a Democrat-controlled legislature, exposing nothing more than the natural turnover when a new administration takes office.
"You can add to that the committee is coming to grips with the fact that the Ehrlich administration didn't fire anyone for being a Democrat, contrary to their wild accusations," said Ehrlich spokesman Henry Fawell. "They've realized the only way to save face in this exercise is to make a show of it."
McCabe said politics did not play a role in the firings. But the secretary, one of five witnesses during more than nine hours of testimony yesterday, did provide the first direct evidence that Steffen was neither a rogue operative nor a bit player.
That's how Ehrlich and his top aides have described Steffen since February, after the governor fired him for describing in Internet postings a whisper campaign against Baltimore Mayor Martin O'Malley (D), one of the governor's chief political rivals.
McCabe said then-Chief of Staff Steven L. Kreseski directed him to give Steffen an office in the department's executive suite and license to roam the building. Steffen sat in on top-level meetings and interviewed high-level officials there, McCabe said. Early during Steffen's four-month stint, McCabe "heard rumors" that Steffen had compiled a list of people to fire but never saw it.
"I told my chief of staff to tell [Steffen] this was, in my view, inappropriate, and he should put a stop to it," he said.
McCabe said that as department secretary, the final decisions on terminations rested with him.
He said he heard talk of certain employees' political activities but did not factor it into his decisions. He also confirmed the existence of a form for hiring new workers that expressly asks the party affiliation of the applicant.