Aide to Ehrlich Held Sway in State Firings

By Ray Rivera
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, May 23, 2006

Internal memos released yesterday suggest that a former aide to Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. wielded broad influence in state personnel decisions, building cases against certain employees and conducting an end run around a Cabinet secretary who was resisting efforts to fire them.

Joseph Steffen, the self-described "political hit man" who has been a central figure in a legislative probe of personnel practices, wrote in one memo about the need to remove several employees in the Department of Juvenile Services "whose best interests do not lie with the Administration." He also described department Secretary Kenneth C. Montague Jr.'s reluctance to do so.

"I will work on building cases against a number of individuals who appear to be on everyone's list -- save Secretary Montague's," Steffen wrote in the Nov. 13, 2003, document, adding that if Montague is unwilling to fire them, "we will have to do it for him.

"It's not standard process or chain of command, but those niceties are not going to work in this situation."

Ehrlich's appointments chief denied yesterday that Steffen played any central role in the Republican administration's decisions to fire dozens of state employees and denied any partisan bias in those personnel moves.

"It's ridiculous," Appointments Secretary Lawrence J. Hogan Jr. said. "This administration is unique in Maryland history. It's the first time where we did not consider party affiliation in these decisions, which has almost always been done in the past."

Hogan said he could not recall seeing the memos from Steffen that were introduced yesterday by Sen. Brian E. Frosh (D-Montgomery) during a day-long hearing before a special legislative committee. Frosh would not say who provided them but said he believed them to be authentic.

Frosh and other Democrats on the committee contend that Steffen and other political operatives were sent into various state agencies to replace Democrats with Ehrlich loyalists. Steffen was fired last year after admitting his involvement in a whisper campaign about one of the governor's political rivals, Baltimore Mayor Martin O'Malley (D).

Hogan said that he barely knew Steffen and that the operative moved from agency to agency to assess operations, not make personnel decisions. Frosh produced four memos after Hogan said repeatedly that the administration had never instructed Cabinet secretaries on whom to hire or fire.

But in testimony yesterday, both Montague and C. Ronald Franks, secretary of natural resources, said they reluctantly fired some employees after being told to do so by the governor's office.

Steffen has not testified because the committee staff cannot find him to serve a subpoena. Yesterday's hearing could be the last for the special committee that has met for eight months. Republicans assail the probe as an expensive witch hunt aimed at discrediting the first GOP governor in 36 years. They put the cost at about $1 million, a figure the committee staff has not confirmed. Legal fees for special counsel Ward Coe III have been about $150,000, according to the staff.

Democrats say the administration has run up costs with a pattern of noncooperation. In more than a dozen hearings, the 12-member panel heard hundreds of hours of testimony from more than 20 witnesses, most of them former employees who, one after another, told similar stories of being fired despite glowing performance evaluations.

Though all were "at-will" employees, who can be fired without cause, the personnel actions have spawned several lawsuits, many of them alleging they were discriminated against because of their political party.

Although staff shake-ups are common when a new administration takes over, some Democrats say Ehrlich went beyond the usual bounds by firing low- and middle-level bureaucrats and technicians.

State Personnel Director Andrea Fulton, who has been with the state 36 years, said Ehrlich's appointments office is far more involved in decisions about at-will employees than its counterparts in past administrations. Past governors focused more intently on appointments to boards and commissions, she said.

She said she was asked to provide lists of all at-will employees to Ehrlich's aides and asked to provide guidance on terminating employees. But she said party affiliation was never discussed, and that she was never asked to fire someone because of his or her political persuasion. Fulton said more at-will employees -- about 340 of 7,000 -- have been fired under Ehrlich than in previous administrations. Former governor Parris N. Glendening (D) fired 65 during the first three years of his administration, Fulton has said.

But asked whether the governor's office broke the law, Fulton said no. "I would think you would need people in places where your vision is going to be carried out," she said.

Hogan defended his office's broader role in personnel decisions, saying they were out to find to "best and the brightest employees, regardless of party affiliation."

He added that the administration terminated about 4 percent of the state's 7,000 at-will employees and has placed several Democrats in high-level positions. "Our Cabinet is now 60 percent Democrat," he said. "That's unprecedented."

House Speaker Michael E. Busch (D-Anne Arundel) said the memos were further evidence of a concerted effort to target Democratic employees for termination by Steffen and a small group of political operatives.

"None of these guys had personnel backgrounds," Busch said. "They did this job without discretion, and to do nothing more than flex their political power."

Staff writer Matthew Mosk contributed to this report.

© 2006 The Washington Post Company