Witnesses Describe Firings From State Jobs

By Matthew Mosk
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, January 31, 2006

As a deputy Cabinet secretary for a Democratic governor and a contributor to the party's gubernatorial candidate, Susan Fernandez said she was hardly surprised to be dismissed when Republican Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. took office in 2003.

But with 18 months to go before retirement, Fernandez said she had hoped to stay on the state's payroll in a lower-level job in another agency. So she took a job with the Maryland Department of Juvenile Services and worked there for a year.

Then Ehrlich aide Joseph Steffen arrived in her department -- the third of four state offices he would work in during his two years on the governor's staff.

"We heard rumors that he carried a list of people they were going to be firing," Fernandez recalled yesterday. "He came to meetings. He watched. He took a few notes."

Two weeks after his arrival, Fernandez was abruptly fired.

Fernandez recounted her story to a legislative committee that has been looking into a rash of dismissals that followed Ehrlich's election as the state's first Republican governor in a generation. With more than 6,000 state employees serving in "at will" positions, Ehrlich has wide discretion to fire workers without explanation or cause. But he cannot, under the law, dismiss employees in non-policy positions for exercising their political views.

Republican lawmakers have dismissed the probe as a partisan witch hunt and said yesterday that they did not trust the testimony of the three latest witnesses.

But Democrats said the witness's testimony showed a discernible pattern of behavior in which the Ehrlich administration targeted for dismissal those it considered political enemies or those whose work was not helping the governor's political agenda.

A common thread in many of the cases is Steffen.

Fernandez, for instance, had helped throw a fundraiser for Ehrlich's 2002 opponent, Democrat Kathleen Kennedy Townsend. Alan Clark, who lost his job as an actuary at the Maryland Insurance Administration, said he had been told his efforts to challenge insurance companies that sought rate increases was "not supporting the governor's agenda."

And Debbie Rosen McKerrow, the insurance administration's spokeswoman, said she attended an October 2003 meeting called by Ehrlich's communications director, Paul E. Schurick, in which she and other veteran state employees were told: "You are the reelection committee. Everything you do from this point on is for the reelection of the governor."

McKerrow lost her job several months after the meeting, without explanation, she said.

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