Hiring-firing committee extends investigation to mid June

Friday, March 31, 2006

ANNAPOLIS — The 12-member legislative committee investigating Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr.’s personnel practices voted Friday to extend its work until mid June as its special counsel vowed to issue more subpoenas.

The Special Committee on Employee Rights and Protections — after months of dormancy — met Friday morning to decide its next steps in probing the hiring and firing decisions made by the Ehrlich administration.

The panel met in closed session where its legal counsel, Ward B. Coe III, discussed his on-going efforts in obtaining personnel documents from the Ehrlich administration via speaker phone. Democratic members said that the administration has not turned over personnel documents from three key agencies, leading Coe to issue subpoenas.

House Environmental Matters Committee Chairman Maggie L. McIntosh, a member of the investigating committee, said Coe will issue subpoenas to the Maryland Insurance Administration, the Public Service Commission and the Department of Juvenile Services.

Issuing subpoenas and extending the commission’s timetable prompted criticism from Republican members of the committee. Ehrlich (R) and his GOP allies have characterized the investigation as a partisan witch hunt.

Senate Minority Leader J. Lowell Stoltzfus said taxpayers will foot the bill for Coe’s legal services that are estimated at costing more than $300,000 by the time the work is complete. Combining Coe’s work with the time spent by administration officials could drive costs north of $1 million, he said.

‘‘Costs are astronomical and it’s getting ridiculous,” Stoltzfus (R-Dist. 38) of Westover said.

Democrats disputed the GOP’s estimated costs.

Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee Chairman Brian E. Frosh defended the committee’s work. He said the investigation has revealed that administration officials fired state employees for political reasons. The state’s workforce needs additional protections, he said.

‘‘You have to sit here with a blindfold on and your ears plugged up” ... to say there was no wrongdoing, Frosh said.

The committee is expected to meet at least three more times to hear from additional witnesses. The panel has been meeting since last summer.

Frosh and others are pressing to have Joseph F. Steffen Jr., the self-proclamed Prince of Darkness of the Ehrlich administration who was dispatched to agencies to gather personnel information, to testify before the committee’s work is complete. Ehrlich fired Steffen after news reports revealed that Steffen was rumormongering on a conservative website.

It is doubtful that any legislation will be passed this session addressing the state’s personnel system as some Democrats have advocated. There is only one week left until lawmakers complete the 90-day session on April 10.

The committee is expected to meet again in mid-April, said House Speaker Pro Tem Adrienne A. Jones (D-Dist. 10) of Woodstock, who is the House co-chair of the panel.