Chesek Was Hatchet Man, Staffer Says

By Ray Rivera
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, May 5, 2006

He called himself "Al Qaeda" and told an employee he was sent to the Maryland Public Service Commission to thin the regulatory agency's ranks and bring in friends of the governor's administration, the agency's former spokeswoman said yesterday.

Craig Chesek, who became the PSC's chief of staff in 2003, helped create an agency better suited to represent utilities than consumers, Chrys Wilson told a special legislative committee investigating the hiring and firing practices of Republican Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr.

"They wanted a more pro-industry commission," said Wilson, who was head of external affairs for eight years until she and four other senior staff members were abruptly fired and were escorted from the building by armed guards April 15, 2004.

The Ehrlich administration has defended the firings as legal, since Wilson and others worked as "at will" employees, subject to termination without cause. Wilson lost a lawsuit last year seeking her job back.

The firings two years ago have resurfaced as Democratic lawmakers -- in the face of dramatic electricity rate increases -- have expressed concern about the independence of the agency that oversees utilities. Scores of e-mails released last week show that commission chairman Kenneth D. Schisler and a top industry lobbyist, Carville B. Collins, shared strategy and together met with the governor's appointment secretary as regulators were preparing to make staff changes. An Ehrlich spokesman has said the firings were not discussed at that meeting.

Yesterday's hearing came as the legislative committee was winding up a probe that began last year. The 12-member committee, consisting of eight Democrats and four Republicans, expects to have two more meetings before issuing a final report.

The highlight of the probe was expected at the next meeting with the testimony of Joseph Steffen, the former Ehrlich aide who has called himself the governor's "political hit man." He told a radio station last year he would willingly meet with the committee, but a key source in the probe said the committee has been unable to locate him. Attempts by The Washington Post to contact him yesterday were unsuccessful.

According to the testimony of former state employees, Steffen and Chesek were among a group of aides sent to various agencies to identify employees who could be terminated to make room for Republican appointees. In e-mails, Steffen talked with Chesek on personnel decisions.

Chesek has said he was involved in personnel decisions but was not there solely to "get rid of people."

Steffen, who was fired in February after The Washington Post disclosed his role in orchestrating a rumor campaign about Baltimore Mayor Martin O'Malley, has admitted his role in identifying workers to be fired but said he never took politics into account.

Ehrlich and Republican lawmakers have called the probe a witch hunt intended to make the administration look bad. Democrats say they're out to protect workers.

Wilson and two other PSC staffers, chief engineer Blaine L. Keener and chief auditor Randy M. Allen, told the committee they received positive reviews and were given no reason for their ouster. All said they believed the firings were political -- all three are Democrats -- and believe they were replaced by people less qualified.

Allen said Chesek became a destructive force in the agency after his arrival, interrupting meetings and injecting his views about technical matters he knew little about.

Wilson added that Chesek called himself "Al Qaeda" and would tell people in senior staff meetings, "You better watch out, Al Qaeda will get you." The comments made even Schisler stir uncomfortably, she said.

"[Chesek] said to me directly that he was there because the governor wants to get his own people in there," Wilson said.

After her firing, Wilson said, she was told by a former Democratic commissioner who was on the board at the time that she was "so pro-consumer that BG&E told Chairman Schisler that Wilson was one of the people that needed to go."

Baltimore Gas and Electric Co. spokesman Robert Gould said "to the best of our knowledge, no BG&E official ever took such action."

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