By Matthew Mosk
Washington Post Staff Writer
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.
Kreseski, who left for a lobbying position, did not return a message left at his office. Fawell would not comment on Steffen or his role in the administration, except to say, "There's nothing more we can add to the mountain of information" already released about him.
"He was one single employee," Fawell said.
Steffen could not be located for comment.
The committee also heard from George W. Casey, the former human resources director for the Department of Transportation, who had written top lawmakers this year decrying "the most harmful and corrosive personnel practices I have observed in 20 years in the field."
Yesterday, Casey described an array of irregularities he observed at the department before being fired himself. He said, for instance, that the governor's appointments office ordered him to stop conducting criminal background checks after two appointees were found to have had criminal infractions.
Casey also said that he raised objections when a supervisor signed documentation granting himself a raise and that he sounded alarms after an employee was fired one day after filing a discrimination complaint with the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. The employee, he said, had complained in an anonymous letter to Ehrlich about being insulted with racial epithets.
"I was concerned [his dismissal] would be seen as retaliation," which would be illegal, Casey said.
Casey also for the first time identified a classified employee who was forced out and was not among the more than 6,000 state workers who serve in "at will" positions. Ehrlich officials have repeatedly said they never fired any employee protected by the merit system.
Transportation Secretary Robert L. Flanagan, who watched Casey testify, later told the panel he took "strong exception" to the testimony and called his former personnel chief "very misguided."
Flanagan and other Republicans said the transit agency was due for a shake-up. Flanagan also testified that the agency had prevailed in the EEOC complaint, though he could not say whether the agency had won on the merits or on procedural grounds.
Afterward, he said in an interview that several problems, including the suspension of criminal background checks, were the result of Casey's misunderstanding of department policy. Once that was cleared up, checks were performed on all the previously hired employees, Flanagan said.
Later, the panel heard from Sandra Guthorn, who said she resigned as acting people's counsel after being ordered to fire one of the top staff attorneys, Paula Carmody.
For the most part, Republican members of the committee said they doubted the worth of the enterprise. House Minority Leader George C. Edwards (Garrett) told Casey: "You've not convinced me that anyone did anything inappropriate here."
Members voted to extend the inquiry until at least Jan. 31, with the possibility of 20 more witnesses to talk about firing practices.
Staff writer Ray Rivera contributed to this report.