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.
Ehrlich and Republican lawmakers on the committee have repeatedly said that the governor was merely exercising his powers under the state constitution and that Steffen had little relevance in the personnel decisions.
Steffen's testimony, however, suggested that he and two other former aides played a pivotal role in clearing out space on the state payroll for Republican loyalists.
At the outset of his cross-examination by the legislative committee's attorney, Ward B. Coe III, Steffen was asked whether he was told to look for "file clerks and secretaries to clear out" to make room for fresh appointees, and Steffen confirmed that he was.
He was assigned to do "reviews and assessments," Steffen said, and that included personnel.
Contrary to the repeated assertions of Ehrlich's top aides, Steffen cast himself as a figure who regularly traveled within the governor's inner circle, saying that he met often with the governor's appointments secretary and that he routinely briefed Ehrlich's chief of staff.
"Your authority in the administration was pretty strong?" asked Sen. Ulysses Currie (D-Prince George's).
"I would say so, yes," Steffen replied.
That question of access is no small matter, lawmakers said, because Ehrlich's top appointments official, Lawrence J. Hogan, came before the committee this year and swore under oath that he barely knew Steffen and only once received his advice on a personnel matter.
"Mr. Hogan said to this committee, 'I probably had maybe three or four conversations with the gentleman ever, and that was just, you know, passing by, how ya' doin'?"
"Was that accurate?" Coe asked Steffen.
"No," Steffen replied, telling Coe that, in fact, they met as often as three times a month to discuss personnel, often in Hogan's office, and they occasionally met for lunch.
Lawmakers said yesterday that they are contemplating whether to recommend that Hogan be charged with perjury.
Ehrlich's communication director, Paul E. Schurick, said that Hogan would not be made available to respond and that he did not know whose version of events was correct. But he warned the Democratic lawmakers not to pursue perjury charges.
"That's a road they better not go down," Schurick said. "They should be very careful."
Del. Adrienne A. Jones (D-Baltimore County), who co-chairs the committee, said she found the discrepancies between Hogan's testimony and Steffen's to be "disturbing."
"They were both under oath, so somebody's not telling the truth," Jones said.
Steffen would not, on advice of counsel, discuss the incident that forced him into the spotlight: his boasts on the Internet that he helped orchestrate a campaign to smear Ehrlich's chief political rival, Baltimore Mayor Martin O'Malley (D). He described how he tendered his resignation in an effort to protect the governor from bad publicity as The Washington Post was preparing an article about the conversations. But he did not respond to questions about his role in any political dirty tricks.
Ehrlich is seeking reelection this year but faces a stiff challenge from O'Malley, who held a double-digit lead in a recent Post poll. The mayor's name came up briefly when Steffen was asked whether he tried to have O'Malley's sister-in-law fired. She worked for the state attorney general's office as an adviser to the state's Insurance Administration, where Steffen worked for a time.
Coe showed Steffen an e-mail in which Steffen discusses the notion of dismissing a lawyer for the department.
Coe asked Steffen, "You saw an opportunity . . . that perhaps the appointments office could" fire her?
"I was at least bringing it up," Steffen replied.