Celeste Nader had been in her job 38 years when her boss told her, just before Thanksgiving, that she would be fired. She could take retirement, but she had to rush to complete piles of paperwork before the close of business that day.
Nader had worked her way up from a social worker to a payroll manager with Maryland's Department of Human Resources. She was given no reason for her 2003 ouster, but a former agency official said he was told that her position should be cleared to make room for a governor's appointee.
"I wanted to work at the state and retire with dignity," she said. "You don't do this to human beings."
Nader is not in the official tally of those fired since Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. (R) took office Jan. 15, 2003. But she was one of dozens of mid-level bureaucrats forced out of their jobs. In many cases, the workers resigned, retired or were demoted after they were told that they would be fired.
As Ehrlich remakes state government, he has reached far into the ranks of public workers whose jobs have historically been safe from political turnover, according to state records and interviews. They include workers who analyzed budgets, investigated employee discrimination and managed benefits.
Ehrlich, the first Republican governor in a generation, has also expanded the reach of his patronage by bringing people in; he has made appointments to relatively low-level jobs, such as motor vehicle workers, computer specialists, a highway traffic monitor and other positions that until now were filled through civil-service hires, records and interviews show.
His personnel moves have gone further and deeper than those of his predecessors, when Democrats succeeded fellow Democrats, according to former state personnel officials.
The governor's hirings and firings have become one of the most caustic issues dividing political leaders in Annapolis. Democratic lawmakers agreed last week to investigate Ehrlich's dismissals, starting the first legislative probe in three decades.
Ehrlich has rejected Democrats' accusations that he fired workers for partisan reasons and has said most of those dismissed were in high-level or policy positions.
Lawrence J. Hogan Jr., Ehrlich's appointments secretary, said the governor wanted "to bring in the best and the brightest people. . . . It's very difficult to bring about the change that voters demanded if you don't change any of the political appointees. . . . We don't care about party affiliation."
In past successions in Maryland, turnover was largely limited to top executives and key policymakers, according to Michael Glass, former acting state personnel director. Glass, who worked in personnel from 1971 to 1996, said that when previous administrations changed, only the "assistant secretaries and above were the level that were at risk," he said.
Ehrlich's top advisers have said they fired 284 workers. That number, they say, is modest compared with what occurred when his predecessor, Parris N. Glendening (D), took office in 1995, replacing fellow Democrat William Donald Schaefer.
But Ehrlich has overseen the dismissal of four times as many workers as Glendening, according to state personnel chief Andrea Fulton, who reviewed state records at the request of The Washington Post. She said Glendening fired 65 workers during the first three years of his administration.
In Maryland, more than 7,000 state workers serve at the will of the administration, a number that has increased during successive administrations as state agencies sought greater flexibility in hiring.
Beyond the number the Ehrlich administration said it has fired, it is difficult to determine precisely how many people have been pushed out in other ways, because the reasons for employee departures are confidential. But a review of personnel records and interviews with current and former employees make clear that the administration's tally of ousted workers does not account for those forced out through resignations, retirements and involuntary demotions.
At two of the state's largest agencies, for example, the number of employees forced out roughly equaled the number fired, according to interviews with workers and two personnel directors who were themselves ousted.
At the Department of Human Resources, about 27 employees were fired between Jan. 15, 2003, and March 2005, according to former personnel director Tom Burgess. But an additional 30 people were forced to resign or retire, or their positions were abolished, according to interviews with workers and Burgess, who was involved with many of the cases. Of the department's 7,400 employees, about 300 serve at the will of the administration.
Burgess, who received outstanding performance reviews, was told by superiors that he could choose to be fired or demoted. He took a five-pay-grade demotion to a different agency in early 2004 before quitting. He said he was told by superiors that he was fired because he had recommended that a high-ranking Democrat be promoted. Burgess is now working for the Baltimore city government.
At the Maryland Department of Transportation, approximately 24 people were fired between Jan. 15, 2003, and April 2004. During that period, an additional 21 resigned, retired or accepted demotions after being given termination letters, according to former personnel director George Casey. Of the department's approximately 9,300 employees, 837 are "at-will" employees.
Casey received an outstanding performance review, he said, but was fired after questioning raises for certain political appointees. State officials said they could not comment on personnel matters.
House Speaker Michael E. Busch (D-Anne Arundel) described the ousted workers as "voiceless people, many of whom have been lifelong state employees, who have lost their livelihoods just because they had the temerity to participate in democracy."
In interviews, Ehrlich aides denied that workers had been forced out for political reasons and defended the governor's right to hire his own team.
"Where does it say anywhere in the law that the governor should replace only people in policy positions?" Hogan asked. "These people serve at the pleasure of the administration."
After Ehrlich's inauguration, widespread reports circulated that loyalists were compiling lists of disloyal state workers to be fired. Among them was Joseph F. Steffen Jr., the longtime Ehrlich aide and self-described "Prince of Darkness" who was fired in February for spreading rumors about Mayor Martin O'Malley's personal life.
Steffen had no influence on personnel decisions, according to two top Ehrlich aides, but the administration did try to ensure that state workers were loyal to the governor's agenda.
"The governor has said he wants people on the same page," Communications Director Paul E. Schurick said.
The state has been forced to defend lawsuits from a half-dozen workers who have claimed they were illegally dismissed because of their political views. In the case of Chrys Wilson, a spokeswoman at the Public Service Commission, a state court ruled that her dismissal violated administrative procedures and ordered the agency to rehire her. The state is appealing.
Daniel Clements, a Baltimore trial lawyer with ties to the Democratic Party, has represented three other plaintiffs, including Baltimore County Councilman Vincent J. Gardina, a Democrat. Gardina, who was paid $56,000 a year as a supervisor of dredging projects in the quasi-public Maryland Environmental Service, was fired in September 2003. The state settled the case for $100,000 in February, Clements said.
Other cases are pending, including one filed in Baltimore Circuit Court by Robin Grove, who supervised several programs at the Department of the Environment. Two days before Ehrlich took office, Grove was one of 30 people who received dismissal notices advising them that "the new Governor's appointees will be assuming responsibility for your position" on Inauguration Day, Jan. 15.
Maryland's situation is in stark contrast to Virginia's. Gov. Mark R. Warner (D) fired about 40 of 181 political appointees when he took office in 2002, according to Warner's deputy press secretary, Kevin Hall. The rest resigned voluntarily, stayed in place, were replaced by civil service employees or moved to other state jobs, he said.
After Ehrlich took office, when some workers learned that they were being dismissed, they were given only minutes' notice before being escorted out by armed guards, many of them have said.
Wilson, of the Public Service Commission, was hustled out of her Baltimore office by a state trooper, and her photograph was posted in the building's lobby so security guards would know not to let her return, she said.
Nader, the former payroll manager at Baltimore City's Department of Social Services, part of DHR, said she believes she was pushed out in November 2003 because she refused when her director asked her to add an employee to the payroll and backdate the paperwork three months. The director, who did not return telephone calls to his home, told her that the order came from the governor's office.
Burgess, the agency personnel director at the time, said he was told that the employee had been working for the governor, had not been paid and was to be placed on the DHR payroll. He also said he was told that the agency needed Nader's position for an Ehrlich appointee.
Nader filed a lawsuit seeking reinstatement. A state court dismissed the case last year on technical grounds; her appeal is pending.
Mary Sacilotto, who worked at DHR automating welfare payments, said she was given 20 minutes to clean out her desk. Sacilotto had worked for the state for 25 years and assumed that she would spend her career there, but she was forced out five years shy of becoming eligible for her full pension.
"We were the working professionals," she said. "We were the people you needed to go to when you wanted to get something done."
She said her boss informed her that her position was being eliminated for budget reasons, but she believes she was forced out because she was a known Democrat and because she had raised questions when her superiors wanted to award a no-bid contract to a favored vendor, which went against procurement rules.
State officials would not comment on Nader's and Sacilotto's cases because they involve personnel matters.
Historically, Maryland's Cabinet secretaries had responsibility for personnel decisions. But shortly after Ehrlich's inauguration, Hogan, the state appointments secretary, sent a memo to Cabinet secretaries alerting them that his office would "vet" all hiring and firing decisions with the governor's staff.
Officials have also made political appointments to several lower-level jobs that have traditionally been civil service positions, according to records and interviews.
At the Maryland Port Administration, part of the state transportation department, those included two computer specialists and two administrative assistants, according to Royce Treadaway, the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees representative to that agency for the past two decades.
The union filed grievances to protest the appointments. "This is the first time in the history of the port that has ever happened," Treadaway said.
One appointee, Bethany Gill, a computer information specialist, was hired in September 2003 at a salary of about $47,000, state records show. George Casey, the former transportation personnel director, said the appointment was authorized and approved by the governor's office.
Andrea Fulton, the state personnel chief, said the appointment was within the department's authority. Gill, who now works at the Public Service Commission, would not comment.
Barry B. Bobo, a Baltimore Realtor and longtime political friend to Baltimore County Republicans, was appointed to a job at the Maryland Transportation Authority a few months after Ehrlich took office.
Casey said he and other department officials were told by the governor's office to find Bobo a job paying $27,000 to $28,000. They discussed tollbooth collector or telecommunications operator before settling on highway operations technician, an entry-level job. Bobo monitors traffic cameras at the authority's operations center at the Fort McHenry tunnel.
"My office was just stunned by this appointment," Casey said.
Chuck Yowell, president of the AFSCME local that represents Transportation Authority workers, said hundreds of employees have applied for that type of position because, unlike many at the department, it is indoors.
"You come in, you take a seat at your console, you watch the TV screens, and if there are problems, you report it," Yowell said.
Fulton said the appointment was within the department's authority. Bobo, who works the overnight shift, said, "I got the job because I was qualified for it."
Staff researcher Bobbye Pratt, database editor Derek Willis and staff writer Michael D. Shear contributed to this report.