After months of sluggish progress, a legislative committee investigating Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich's hiring and firing practices yesterday directed its outside counsel to begin interviewing state employees who say they were fired to make room for the governor's political allies.
Baltimore attorney Ward B. Coe III's marching orders came amid a growing partisan divide over the direction of the investigation and as a former aide to the Republican governor has begun talking about his role in the firings.
Senate Minority Leader J. Lowell Stoltzfus (Somerset), one of four Republicans on the 12-member panel, said he hopes to expand the scope of the probe to include an Internet conversation linking the former Ehrlich aide, Joseph Steffen, to the spread of rumors about a political rival.
Democrats say they are eager to talk to Steffen about his involvement in identifying state employees for termination, but saw no point in pursuing details of the Internet chat. "I think they're trying to distract the public's attention from the real issues," said Sen. Brian E. Frosh (D-Montgomery County).
Steffen yesterday appeared on WBAL-TV and described his role as "a political hit man in the Ehrlich administration."
Steffen told the television station he was dispatched by the governor's office to several state agencies, in part, to identify workers who could be fired to clear space for GOP allies. "That was never the expressed purpose, but was part of the overall job description," he said in comments quoted on the station's Web site. "I responded to the deputy secretary and the [governor's] appointments office anywhere from one to five times a week."
The governor's office has said that Steffen was "irrelevant" and played no role in personnel decisions.
Ehrlich fired Steffen abruptly in February upon the disclosure that the aide had discussed on a conservative Web site his involvement in a campaign to spread rumors about Baltimore Mayor Martin O'Malley, a Democrat now running for governor.
Stoltzfus said that the disclosure of the private message postings was in itself a Democratic dirty trick and that the investigative committee should unearth the identity of an anonymous Web poster known as MD4BUSH, who coaxed Steffen to talk about the whisper campaign.
Stoltzfus yesterday said he may ask the committee to subpoena records of the Web site where the chats took place, freerepublic.com, and to subpoena Washington Post reporter Matthew Mosk, who first reported the postings.
R.B. Brenner, The Post's Maryland editor, said: "There is no reason to subpoena Matthew Mosk. We have already reported that we don't know who MD4BUSH is and that the newspaper had no involvement in the postings."
Mosk was given printed copies of the messages in November 2004, Brenner said. Unable to verify their authenticity, the reporter appealed for help and, in January, was given sign-on information to enter the chat room by someone associated with MD4BUSH, he said. The exchanges with Steffen appeared in October and November.
"Given the nature of the postings, we needed to verify that the copies we had been provided were accurate," Brenner said. Mosk later showed printouts to Steffen before the Feb. 9 story was published.
Stoltzfus suggested Mosk's use of the log-in information would constitute an ethical breach if the reporter had used it to communicate with Steffen. Brenner said Mosk simply read the messages and did not post anything on the Web site.
Ehrlich, speaking to reporters yesterday, initially played down the controversy, saying "minor political drama is not part of my job description." But he added: "This turn does raise significant new issues concerning whether this was a setup and what role a newspaper played."
Coe, the special counsel who has discretion to identify witnesses coming before the committee, said, "I can't imagine why we would want to subpoena a Washington Post reporter about the separations of state personnel."
The 12-member committee, which was formed in June, has asked for 10 years of hiring and firing data from the state to compare Ehrlich's personnel practices with those of his predecessors. At a meeting yesterday, the committee was told the data will be delayed because of programming errors. State personnel director Andrea Fulton assured the committee that the delay "was nothing more than a mistake and not sabotage." Democrats yesterday, noting the timing of the allegations, called them a diversionary tactic.
"The real issue at this point is Joe Steffen confirmed what they have denied all the way through this, which is they were firing file clerks and secretaries to make room for people they wanted to get jobs for," Frosh said. "They were using those low-level jobs as patronage."
Staff writer John Wagner contributed to this report.