Ehrlich Adviser Details Firings

By Matthew Mosk
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, August 10, 2006

Joseph Steffen, the central figure in the probe of Maryland Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr.'s firing practices, testified yesterday that he identified numerous state employees for dismissal and that he did so at the direction of the governor's top aides.

Steffen said he was not specifically instructed to target Democrats, but he did consider party affiliation while evaluating whether to retain certain state employees in Maryland's first Republican administration in a generation.

He portrayed himself as a key player in advising the administration on personnel changes, directly contradicting earlier sworn testimony from a top Ehrlich aide.

Notorious among state employees for the Grim Reaper figurine on his desk and his "Prince of Darkness" moniker, Steffen, 47, arrived at the ornate Senate hearing room in a simple gray suit.

Compelled by a subpoena and a judge's order, he sat down before members of a special state legislative committee and, for most of his three-hour testimony, answered in clipped sentences and one-word replies, often pausing to be sure his attorney would not object.

His descriptions of the terminations did not betray any sympathy for those who were fired and at times seemed to border on cavalier. In one case, he recalled recommending that a veteran state administrator be fired because she wrote a note telling people to avoid him.

Steffen's appearance was the climax of a year-long probe by state lawmakers into the dismissal of 340 state workers that came in the months after Ehrlich was elected.

Democratic delegates and senators have sought to learn whether Ehrlich, working through operatives such as Steffen, intended to dismiss veteran state employees solely on the basis of their party affiliation -- something Ehrlich has long denied. To do so would have violated workers' constitutional rights.

In that respect, Steffen did little to help the Democrats.

The employees' political affiliation, he told them, was "in the back of my mind" when he made some recommendations -- as with the wife of a longtime lobbyist for liberal causes, who was fired from her position writing grant proposals. But partisanship was never, in the end, the reason a person was fired, he said.

"This legislative committee was pulled together to see if anyone was fired" illegally, Del. Jean B. Cryor (R-Montgomery) said afterwards. "But after months of testimony, the simple fact is that no one was fired because of their political party."

Under Maryland law, a governor has the power to dismiss more than 6,000 "at-will" employees without cause. But it would be improper to fire them specifically for their political affiliation. Records show that the administration fired 340 people in its first three years, compared with the 64 fired in the three years after Ehrlich's predecessor, Gov. Parris N. Glendening (D), took office.

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