Newly released e-mails show that an aide in Republican Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr.'s appointments office personally authorized the dismissal of a mid-level state engineer with ties to the Democratic Party, information that could become a focus of a legislative probe into the role politics played in the governor's personnel actions.
A September 2003 e-mail exchange, obtained through the Maryland Public Records Act, sheds new light on the deliberations that immediately preceded the firing of Vincent J. Gardina, a Democrat on the Baltimore County Council who had worked for five months on dredging projects at the Maryland Environmental Service. Gardina, who earned $55,000 a year, had received a favorable work evaluation just weeks before being terminated.
After being dismissed, Gardina sued the governor, alleging that he was fired solely because of his political affiliation. The state settled the suit for $100,000 before the question could be resolved.
Some lawmakers have cited the settlement as evidence that Ehrlich oversaw a purge of Democrats from state government after becoming the state's first Republican governor in a generation. Gardina could be a key witness in hearings this year on the governor's personnel practices.
Ehrlich and his aides have said that the settlement was not an admission of wrongdoing and that none of the administration's personnel decisions was based on politics. "Bob Ehrlich has never, and will never, terminate a single state employee because of his or her political affiliation," Paul E. Schurick, the governor's communications director, said in an interview this year. "That's never been done. It never will be done under this governor."
Ehrlich and his aides have never said what role the governor played, if any, in Gardina's dismissal, citing advice from the state attorney general's office. In a legal brief filed in response to Gardina's suit, the governor's attorney states that Ehrlich "lacks the necessary authority" to hire or fire employees of the Maryland Environmental Service, a quasi-governmental agency.
But a Sept. 9, 2003, e-mail suggests that the governor's appointments office played a role in the firing. In one e-mail, Ehrlich's deputy appointments secretary advises Gardina's boss: "You can let Vince Gardina go. We have signed off on this end."
Two days later, Deputy Appointments Secretary Diane M. Baker writes again to Maryland Environmental Service Director John S. Sparkman to ask, "How did it go?"
Sparkman's reply refers to an article in that morning's Washington Post, about another former state employee who had sued the governor, accusing the administration of firing him solely because he is a Democrat.
"I suppose you read this morning's Washington Post," Sparkman writes to Baker. "If not, you should, and tremble."
Baker replies: "Given recent events, the sooner the better to make the cut."
Sen. Brian E. Frosh (D-Montgomery), a member of the legislative committee reviewing the governor's personnel practices, said he believes the e-mail exchange is revealing.
"It confirms that the appointments office, which is the governor's political arm, had final say over hiring and firing," Frosh said. "More than that, though, the e-mails show they aren't telling the truth when they say the governor's office didn't intervene in this decision and that [Gardina] wasn't fired for political purposes."
Frosh said Gardina's case is one of several that suggest the governor's office weighed in on personnel decisions at agencies that are supposed to operate independently.
Ehrlich said during a brief interview yesterday that he could not comment on the e-mails but that his administration believes that Gardina secured his state job through political connections.
Gardina appeared convinced that politics motivated his dismissal. In an e-mail written the day he was dismissed, he tells former colleagues: "As you know, I was terminated by the governor because I beat a very close friend of his in the last election."