Firing Offenses

Tuesday, December 27, 2005

FOR NEARLY a year, venomous partisan sniping in Maryland over the Ehrlich administration's personnel practices has partly obscured an underlying truth: It is illegal to fire mid- or low-level public employees solely because of their political beliefs. That tenet of constitutional law, affirmed by the Supreme Court and reflected in Maryland statute, is what's at issue in hearings of a special legislative committee that are finally underway in Annapolis, months after the controversy erupted. That, and the ruined careers of state employees who were fired or forced from their jobs after Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. took office nearly three years ago.

Mr. Ehrlich, Maryland's first Republican chief executive in more than 30 years, ran for office criticizing what he called the culture of corruption in Annapolis and vowing to attack it if elected. His message struck a chord in a state where patronage, graft, and cozy relations among politicians, lobbyists and bureaucrats have been a hallmark of government. Many voters, taking Mr. Ehrlich at his word, clearly expected him to bring new blood into state government.

The question is whether Mr. Ehrlich overreached. In testimony to the special legislative committee two weeks ago, a former state personnel official described how the Ehrlich administration dismissed a number of mid-level state workers, in some cases solely because they were Democrats or suspected of disloyalty. The targeted employees, culled from a document that Ehrlich aides called the "death list," were fired in each instance to make room for Republican loyalists, according to the testimony of Tom Burgess, a former director of personnel for the Maryland Department of Human Resources who spent 14 years in state service.

Although he is a registered Republican, Mr. Burgess has supported some Democrats and now works for one -- Baltimore Mayor Martin O'Malley -- who is a leading candidate to run against Mr. Ehrlich next year. His credibility was attacked by the GOP; Mr. Ehrlich was reported to have dismissed the proceedings as "goofy." But many officials who heard Mr. Burgess's testimony thought him a convincing witness, and even some Republicans, while noting that his testimony remains uncorroborated, conceded that he made a good impression. Moreover, his testimony reinforced other bits of information that have come to light, including the unsavory declarations of Joseph F. Steffen Jr., a Republican party hack and former Ehrlich loyalist who fancied himself a partisan "grim reaper" as he combed through state agencies looking for employees to fire -- by his account -- on Mr. Ehrlich's behalf.

That behavior clearly troubled members of Mr. Ehrlich's own administration, including Human Resources Secretary Christopher J. McCabe, who testified last Tuesday that he was forced to invite Mr. Steffen into his agency to target employees for termination. Mr. McCabe had his department's top lawyer write to Mr. Ehrlich's chief counsel, complaining that Mr. Steffen was looking through an employee's payroll records. Though Mr. McCabe maintains that politics did not play a role in the firings, he did confirm the existence of a form for hiring new workers that expressly asks applicants' party affiliation. What is that all about?

Under state law, more than 6,000 Maryland employees work at the governor's pleasure and may be fired at will. However, they may not be fired because of their race, religion, gender -- or politics. The special committee's burden is to determine whether the Ehrlich administration went too far and broke the law.

The evidence so far is incomplete. Of Maryland's public sector "management service" -- some 1,800 mid-level managers who make up the state bureaucracy's institutional memory -- about 450, or 25 percent, were fired or forced out, resigned, or retired in Mr. Ehrlich's first two years in office. That is a significant hemorrhage, way beyond the losses of previous years. But it remains unknown how many of them may have been fired or compelled to leave because of their politics. The special committee does not yet know how many of those who left were Democrats, nor does it have a full picture of the circumstances that led them to leave. The committee should keep digging.

© 2005 The Washington Post Company