Ranking Democrats in the Maryland legislature said yesterday that they want the committee investigating Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr.'s personnel practices to question the governor's now-infamous political operative, Joseph Steffen.
The man who described himself as the "Prince of Darkness" and who kept a Grim Reaper figurine on his desk while boasting that he was drawing up lists of state workers to be terminated broke nearly eight months of silence over the weekend about his role in the Ehrlich administration.
Steffen confirmed to the Baltimore Sun that he was, in fact, dispatched by the governor's top aides to a series of agencies with the express purpose of identifying state workers to be fired.
Steffen also said he would "testify in a heartbeat" about the Ehrlich administration's approach to clearing out low- and mid-level state government workers, a task he said was intended to make room on the state payroll for loyalists to Maryland's first Republican governor in a generation.
"I was told by people in the appointments office to look deeper, look for file clerks, secretaries," he said in the interview, published yesterday. " 'We have people who can do these jobs,' " he said he was told.
Steffen, who spent years as an aide to Ehrlich, also said he was considering running against the governor as a Libertarian Party candidate next year.
Steffen was fired in February after The Washington Post disclosed his role in spreading rumors about Baltimore Mayor Martin O'Malley, one of the governor's Democratic rivals. Steffen has declined recent requests for interviews and did not respond to e-mails yesterday.
Ehrlich said he had not read the report in the Sun. But last night, he seized on one aspect of the Steffen interview, in which the former aide noted that he had never targeted workers based on political affiliation. He said he had recommended Republicans as well as Democrats for termination.
"Nobody cared about party," Ehrlich said. "I've said that repeatedly."
Ehrlich did not dispute the notion that Steffen identified people to be fired, but he said that as governor, he was too concerned with "the big things" to be aware of it. He said Steffen was helping the administration make room "for objective, competent people who were with the program," something any new governor would want to do.
Democratic lawmakers said Steffen might be among the few Ehrlich administration insiders willing to lay bare the personnel strategy that has become the focus of Maryland's first legislative probe in 30 years.
What Steffen has now said publicly "dovetails exactly into what the legislature has asked this special committee to review," said Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr. (D-Calvert).
"The issue before us is 7,000 at-will employees, many of them low-level employees, who never thought they would be subject to being fired, willy-nilly, by some political hatchet person," Miller said.
House Speaker Michael E. Busch (D-Anne Arundel) agreed, saying he hoped that the committee would compel him to testify. "This guy literally is why there is a special committee. He verifies that his job was to go in and remove state employees from their jobs."
Neither Ehrlich's communications director, Paul E. Schurick, nor Appointments Secretary Lawrence J. Hogan Jr. returned calls yesterday. Both have said that although Steffen might have thought he was supposed to make recommendations about personnel matters, his advice was never given significant weight.
Steven L. Kreseski, the governor's former chief of staff, said he never told Steffen to compile lists of people to fire. Instead, he was meant to be a troubleshooter who would report to his immediate superiors with advice on how to improve the agencies where he worked.
"Joe took that to another level, apparently," Kreseski said.
Sue Esty, the legislative director for AFSCME Council 92, the union that represents many state workers, said Steffen's account, if true, should bring about significant changes to the state's personnel law.
"People who do the regular work of the state are supposed to be hired based on merit and terminated based on cause," Esty said. "That process does not include hiring somebody to target people for termination."
Under the current state personnel structure, there are nearly 7,000 employees who serve at the pleasure of the governor and who lack civil service protections typically afforded low- and mid-level public employees to shield them from shifting political winds.
It has always been understood that high-level executives would serve at the pleasure of governor, Esty said.
"To dig into the regular state employee workforce and replace those people with patronage appointees is really not only harmful to morale," she added, "it's counterproductive, because people aren't being hired based on their qualifications."