Maryland Republicans urged lawmakers yesterday to widen their probe of the state's hiring and firing practices to include a controversial Internet exchange that exposed the activities of a former aide to Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr.

Democratic lawmakers brushed off a suggestion from Ehrlich chief counsel Jervis S. Finney that an investigative committee look into the identity of MD4BUSH. That's the name used by the person who coaxed Ehrlich's longtime political aide, Joseph Steffen, into discussing Steffen's involvement in spreading rumors about Baltimore Mayor Martin O'Malley, a rival to the Republican governor.

Finney's request came on the heels of Steffen's decision to talk this week about his role identifying state workers for termination by the Ehrlich administration -- the subject of the legislative probe.

Finney suggested redirecting the investigation and added more fuel to the whodunit by releasing two e-mails that he implied could help identify MD4BUSH -- one of them allegedly written by a former staff member of the Maryland Democratic Party. That e-mail was written the night before The Washington Post reported on Steffen's postings and Ehrlich's decision to fire the aide. That e-mail advised party loyalists of a "big story" coming out.

The operative, who no longer was working for the party at the time the e-mail was dated, said last night that the document was a fake.

The Post's Maryland editor, R.B. Brenner, said: "It is not surprising that Democrats were communicating about the story the night before it appeared in print." He added, "The Post interviewed Mayor O'Malley, Governor Ehrlich and Joe Steffen, among others, before the story was published."

There was a flurry of activity from both parties, including Ehrlich's decision to fire Steffen, on the evening before the first article about the aide appeared Feb. 9.

Senate Minority Leader J. Lowell Stoltzfus (R-Somerset), who sits on the legislative panel, said the committee should consider subpoenaing records for the Web site where the message exchange occurred, Stoltzfus also said there was possible "collusion" between the Democratic Party and The Post.

Brenner said, "The Washington Post had no involvement in any way in the chat room postings" between Steffen and MD4BUSH. "The Post did not know about them until after they had already occurred, as we have reported."

Brenner said The Post does not know the identity of MD4BUSH, which the newspaper also has reported.

Post reporter Matthew Mosk received printed copies of the message exchanges last fall, Brenner said. To verify they were authentic, he said, Mosk was given sign-on information needed to view the private chat room by an intermediary acting on behalf of MD4BUSH in late January. Mosk used that information to verify that "the chat room messages were genuine," Brenner said. Mosk presented the printouts to Steffen in February to confirm that they represented his words.