State lawmakers have yet to launch their probe into Maryland Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr.'s personnel practices, but an ugly partisan clash is already developing.
First, the Republican governor's chief counsel questioned whether certain Democrats had the capacity to conduct an impartial investigation.
A Democratic lawmaker fired back, accusing the governor of "Karl Rove-style" tactics and of "trampling on the rights of respected state employees."
The governor threatened to "take down" any lawmaker who used the probe as a platform to question his integrity.
And yesterday, Montgomery County Executive Douglas M. Duncan (D) joined the escalating war of words, calling Ehrlich's response to the probe the latest evidence of a failure in leadership.
"To me, the responsible leader says, 'You've got a problem . . . Let's fix it, and make sure it doesn't happen again,' " said Duncan, who is campaigning for governor. "But what they've done is they have just gone into attack mode."
Told of Duncan's remarks, which came during a speech in Anne Arundel County, Ehrlich spokesman Paul E. Schurick said :"He should mind his own business. He should be worrying about safety hazards and building codes in Clarksburg and leave the other stuff in Annapolis to us."
Legislative leaders said such coarse exchanges are likely to escalate later this month, when a special committee of lawmakers meets to begin an inquiry into allegations that Ehrlich fired mid-level state workers solely because of their political views.
Already there has been political jockeying. Schurick told reporters this year that his staff was conducting its own review of hiring practices under Democratic administrations. He suggested that his office would share information about patronage hiring done at the request of top lawmakers.
More recently, top Ehrlich aides have been quietly urging legislative leaders not to grant the panel subpoena authority -- a power rarely invoked by the part-time legislature.
House Speaker Pro Tem Adrienne A. Jones (D-Baltimore County), co-chair of the investigative panel, said she plans to seek that power to guarantee that the administration turns over important documents and that key Ehrlich aides testify.
"If you want to deal with the facts, you need the tools in order to get at those facts," she said.
Jones was one of several lawmakers who said yesterday that recent broadsides would not deter the review.
"We have a responsibility to determine if we're getting the best use of our resources and if state employees are being dealt with fairly," Jones said. "They can try all they want to intimidate us. But I'm not concerned."
Among the questions the committee is expected to investigate: whether Ehrlich dispatched longtime aides to various state agencies to weed out workers who were not loyal to the governor; whether his administration replaced mid-level bureaucrats who do not have civil service protections; and, possibly, whether a longtime Ehrlich aide used his state job to conduct a political dirty tricks campaign.
Ehrlich and other state officials have repeatedly dismissed all of those allegations. They note that the governor has legal authority to replace over 7,000 state employees without providing a reason. And they say none of thousands of state workers with civil service protections have been fired.
The Republicans have called the investigation a political witch hunt.
Democrats said they have no intention of turning the probe into political theater.
Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr. (D-Calvert) said recently that he wants to focus solely on a "loophole" that enabled so many state employees to face dismissal at the governor's discretion. "The committee was not formed to embarrass the governor," he said. "It was designed solely to ferret out objective ways to protect state employees."
Still, committee members said they expect to follow the information wherever it takes them. Sen. Paula C. Hollinger (D-Baltimore County) said she is particularly concerned about legal liability the state faces in such cases, including one in which a worker received a $100,000 settlement from the state.
Hollinger said she won't let up until she is satisfied. "If they want to call me names, so be it."