The man who has called himself Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr.'s "political hit man" said he would sit down yesterday for an interview with the lawyer heading up the legislative probe into the governor's hiring and firing practices.
The former aide to Ehrlich, Joseph Steffen, told Baltimore radio listeners yesterday that he had volunteered to meet with attorney Ward Coe to share his insider account of how the Republican governor set about to remake the state workforce after taking office in 2003.
Democratic lawmakers said the interview had the potential to set the course of the investigation, which is in its earliest stages, given the public statements Steffen has made in recent days.
"This guy has confirmed what [the Ehrlich administration has] been denying from the beginning -- that he was instructed to fire low-level workers so they could fill slots with their Republican buddies," said Sen. Brian E. Frosh (D-Montgomery).
At the same time, Steffen has refuted one major contention made by several employees who lost their job: that they were targeted because of their political views. Steffen reiterated yesterday that he never factored political leanings into his recommendations. "There were at least two high-level Democrats that I defended," Steffen said on WBAL Radio.
Ehrlich seized on that aspect during a recent interview, saying it offered proof that his administration did nothing wrong. "Nobody cared about party," Ehrlich said. "I've said that repeatedly."
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 by The Post but has sat down with several Baltimore reporters in the past week.
He said he would meet on his "own volition" with Coe, counsel for the legislative committee. Coe declined to discuss details of the probe or confirm the 2:30 p.m. meeting.
The man who described himself as the "Prince of Darkness" could help investigators in a number of areas, Frosh said. Among them: identifying other state workers who were assigned, as Steffen says he was, to draw up lists of workers to be dismissed.
Ehrlich's communications director, Paul E. Schurick, at one point described Steffen as "irrelevant to our world," a contention Steffen disputed. "When Paul Schurick and others were using terms like 'irrelevant' and 'bit player' in terms of what I was doing for the state, that was absolutely inaccurate," Steffen said.
Schurick, who was on the radio program when Steffen called in, did not respond to that assertion. Schurick did not return messages left at his office and on his cell phone.
Steffen also reiterated that he was serious about his interest in running for governor as a Libertarian against his former boss. He said he regrets using "Segretti-like" dirty tricks against Ehrlich's political opponent, a reference to former Nixon aide Donald Segretti, whose coordination of such operations helped lead to the Watergate scandal.
When asked why he did it, Steffen said, "If you're working in politics, you win by not only building up your own guy but by doing some damage to the other guy."