Star Witness Is a No-Show In Investigation of Firings

Maryland Gov. Robert Ehrlich, left, with former longtime aide Joseph Steffen, in an undated file photo.
Maryland Gov. Robert Ehrlich, left, with former longtime aide Joseph Steffen, in an undated file photo. (Wmar (Channel 2) Via Associated Press)
By Matthew Mosk
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, May 12, 2006

For the Maryland lawmakers who have spent eight months investigating why so many state employees were fired by Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr.'s administration, yesterday was supposed to be the big day.

After more than 20 witnesses subpoenaed, sworn and grilled, it was time for the main event. Time to get back to where it all started. Time to hear from Joe Steffen.

"I half expected him to burst in the hearing room in dramatic fashion, wearing a cape or something," said Ward B. Coe III, the special counsel hired last year to conduct the probe.

But the man who signed his e-mails "POD," for Prince of Darkness, whose boasts on the Internet brought about the probe, who went on radio and promised to come clean before the committee was nowhere to be found.

And that was not for lack of trying.

Coe said he called Steffen's cellphone repeatedly and got no answer. He called people who he thought might know Steffen's whereabouts. A process server he sent to Steffen's northeast Baltimore apartment knocked on doors and talked to neighbors. Nothing.

Coe considers Steffen "a central figure in this investigation," and there was no question yesterday why he wants to put Steffen under oath.

Testimony came from two of Steffen's close friends; one said he had made Steffen a groomsman in his wedding. Both took the witness chair before the committee to answer questions about the Republican governor's personnel policies.

Craig Chesek, who once worked alongside Steffen in Ehrlich's congressional office, became chief of staff at the independent agency that regulates the state's utilities, where five employees were handed termination letters April 15, 2004, then were escorted from their offices by armed guards.

Months before the firings at the Public Service Commission, those actions were foretold by Steffen.

"Chesek is CoS at PSC -- and once [Chairman Kenneth] Schisler is confirmed as PSC Director, they can start cleaning house," Steffen wrote in an e-mail to a friend.

During the second hour of testimony, Coe presented Chesek with the e-mail and asked him whether its contents were true. Did he ever tell Steffen about "a potential housecleaning"?

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