A legislative panel reviewing firings of state workers by Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr.'s administration will have subpoena power and the ability to hire outside counsel despite fierce objections raised by Republicans.
After striking a conciliatory chord earlier in the week, GOP lawmakers said yesterday that they are considering pulling out of proceedings after Democrats voted down a dozen amendments to rein in the panel's powers.
"This was a partisan steamrolling," said Senate Minority Leader J. Lowell Stoltzfus (Somerset), one of four Republicans on the 12-member Special Committee on State Employee Rights and Protections. "I think we threw fairness out the window."
Democrats, who hold large majorities in both chambers of the Maryland General Assembly, said their colleagues were overreacting and pledged an evenhanded review.
"They're protesting way too much," Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr. (D-Calvert) said in an interview. "Our purpose is nothing more than to make changes in the personnel law. There are problems that arose, and they need to be addressed."
The committee was set up in response to complaints that Ehrlich, the first elected Republican governor in more than 30 years, had reached deep into the bureaucracy and pushed out longtime workers to make room for politically connected replacements.
Ehrlich spokeswoman Shareese DeLeaver said the panel was acting like an investigative committee, which requires an act of the full House or Senate to establish. Democratic lawmakers have been careful to characterize their work, formally authorized yesterday by a joint committee of legislative leaders, as a "review."
"There's a serious disconnect between the rhetoric of the committee and the actions that have taken place today," DeLeaver said.
Democratic leaders of the panel, which includes House and Senate members, restated a commitment to look at past Democratic administrations as well.
During one heated exchange, Sen. Thomas M. Middleton (D-Charles), co-chairman of the committee, told Stoltzfus that he was "looking for a serpent under every rock."
After failing to eliminate the power all together, Republicans sought to eliminate the panel's subpoena power, saying repeatedly that the Ehrlich administration has nothing to hide and that the move would set a dangerous precedent.
Although several legislative committees possess subpoena power, the last time legislative aides recall it being used was during a 1975 investigation of the Baltimore police department.
Republican lawmakers sought to require nine of the panel's 12 votes to subpoena a witness or personnel records. With eight Democrats on the panel, that would have ensured that at least one Republican member supported the request.
"This is the amendment where we can decide how this committee is going to function," Del. Jean B. Cryor (R-Montgomery) told her colleagues. "This is the amendment that reassures the public it's going to be fair."
The amendment was voted down along party lines.
Republicans also sought to strike the committee's ability to hire outside counsel, a move that would have limited staffing to legislative aides. After that effort failed, the Republicans sought to authorize hiring separate counsel to represent their interests. That was voted down as well.
GOP members also sought a cap on committee spending, which Democrats said was premature because the scope of their efforts remains undefined.
Republicans argue that the investigation is overreaching, and Democrats counter that Ehrlich's personnel practices warrant the scrutiny.
Sen. Brian E. Frosh (D-Montgomery) recounted episodes in which longtime employees were escorted out of work by armed guards upon being fired and said he has heard several allegations of employees being fired for political reasons -- a notion Ehrlich disputes.
"If you look at what has happened, it cries out for a hard look," Frosh said.
Administration officials have accused Frosh and others on the panel of prejudging the outcome of the review and have urged their removal.
In an exchange of letters between Miller and Stoltzfus released yesterday, Miller suggested that Ehrlich had done the same thing earlier in his political career. As a member of Congress in 1998, Ehrlich was quoted in a newspaper article before President Bill Clinton's impeachment proceedings as saying: "He clearly, clearly committed perjury many times. I don't think anyone can argue it."
DeLeaver, Ehrlich's spokeswoman, characterized the comparison as "pretty desperate." She said, "Federal apples are being mixed with state oranges."