Maryland Republicans yesterday decried news of Democratic researchers obtaining Lt. Gov. Michael S. Steele's credit report, suggesting that it showed how seriously the Democrats are taking Steele's likely bid for the U.S. Senate.

"If they're trashing you, they fear you," Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. (R) said. "You don't go to this sort of extreme if you're not fearful."

Ehrlich's assessment followed reports that federal prosecutors are investigating whether two Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee employees illegally obtained Steele's credit information as they conducted opposition research.

Derek Walker, a spokesman for the Maryland Democratic Party, said the episode had nothing to do with the party's view of a Steele candidacy. "This is a one-time stupid mistake by a couple of young people who were willing to take responsibility immediately," Walker said. "That's what this is about."

The DSCC employees were suspended after the July episode and resigned early this month. The committee reported the breach to the U.S. attorney's office, which began an investigation, DSCC spokesman Phil Singer said.

Yesterday, Steele's office issued a statement that he expects those involved to be prosecuted "to the full extent of the law."

"Lt. Gov. Steele was extremely disturbed to learn about the alleged criminal identity theft of his personal financial records," said the statement by Steele's chief of staff, Paul D. Ellington.

A spokesman for the U.S. attorney's office for the District of Columbia, which is investigating the episode, declined to speculate about possible criminal violations or penalties.

Under federal law, it is illegal to knowingly and willfully obtain a credit report under false pretenses. Violations of that provision, contained in the Fair Credit Reporting Act, can result in a maximum penalty of two years in prison and a $250,000 fine. Lawyers familiar with the case said that if a crime occurred, the penalty would be far less severe, however, in part because the disclosure did not damage Steele financially.

Sources with knowledge of the situation identified the employees involved as Katie Barge, the committee's former research director, and Lauren Weiner. Both are in their twenties, co-workers said.

DSCC officials expressed regret over the incident, Singer said.

Politically, the episode could help insulate Steele against criticism by Democrats, said Thomas F. Schaller, a political scientist at the University of Maryland Baltimore County. "When there are future attacks, the Republicans will have a ready refrain of, 'There they go again,' " he said. Others suggested that news of the episode could also hurt Steele, reminding voters of personal debts that became an issue in the 2002 campaign.

Steele is expected to run next year for the Senate seat of Sen. Paul S. Sarbanes (D), who is retiring. Several Democrats, including Rep. Benjamin L. Cardin and former congressman Kweisi Mfume, are also running.

Lt. Gov. Michael S. Steele is a likely GOP candidate for U.S. Senate.