State workers need more safeguards, special panel concludes

Accusations of a partisan witch-hunt continue as Democrat-dominated panel prepares to issue final recommendations

Tuesday, Oct. 10, 2006

The conclusions of a year-long investigation into Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr.’s personnel decisions sparked more partisan finger-pointing this week and prompted a key Senate leader to vow reform no matter the outcome of November’s election.

Senate Finance Committee Chairman Thomas McLain Middleton, co-chairman of the committee that determined the Ehrlich administration broke the law in firing certain state employees, vowed Tuesday that state employees need additional rights to prevent being fired for their political affiliation.

Middleton said the General Assembly will put the recommendations of the 12-member Special Joint Committee on State Employee Rights and Protections into law no matter if Ehrlich (R) or Baltimore Mayor Martin O’Malley (D) is elected in November.

‘‘You’re going to see some meaningful legislation come out of the work of the special committee whether Ehrlich or O’Malley is elected in November,” said Middleton (D-Dist. 28) of Waldorf. ‘‘My gut feeling is that people were fired for their political affiliation which goes against their constitutional rights. You’re going to see legislation that protects that constitutional right.”

The special committee released its 135-page draft report — prepared by its special counsel, Ward B. Coe III — on Monday. It concluded that firings ‘‘occurred that were arbitrary, inconsistent with improving state government or illegal.” The report lays out instances where state employees were fired based on their political affiliation and that the state’s appointments office was charged with making broad personnel decisions throughout state government. The appointments office under previous governors was in charge of making ceremonial appointments to boards and commissions.

‘‘It appears to have been a mistake to confer on an office that was traditionally in charge of patronage appointments the responsibility of directing termination of at-will employees and identifying replacements,” according to the report, which is set to be finalized when the committee meets Thursday.

Republicans and aides to Ehrlich continued to dismiss the committee’s work as a partisan witch-hunt. The four Republicans on the committee issued their own ‘‘minority report” on Monday and sought to knock down the findings in Coe’s report.

‘‘The committee’s 13-month investigation of the Ehrlich administration was unnecessary, expensive and fruitless,” according to the summary of the minority’s report. ‘‘Although the majority report spans hundreds of pages and includes a plethora of documentary exhibits, it contributes nothing to the public’s understanding of the state personnel management system and fails to provide support for the majority’s false allegations.”

Henry P. Fawell, an Ehrlich spokesman, dismissed the investigation and its findings. ‘‘It cost them a million dollars to chase their tails for 14 months, and they found absolutely nothing,” Fawell said.

The investigation and the committee’s reports are the culmination of an extended drama involving former Ehrlich aide Joseph F. Steffen Jr., the so-called Prince of Darkness who was fired after talking about O’Malley’s personal life in an Internet chat room. Steffen was dispatched to several state agencies to evaluate personnel and programs. He was known as a shadowy figure in the administration and testified to the committee that he placed Grim Reaper statuettes on his desk. According to Steffen’s testimony, he had direct ties to top members of the Ehrlich administration.

The committee has filed suit against Steffen and two other Ehrlich administration officials seeking further testimony.

The committee is recommending 10 changes, which could be included in legislation to be introduced in next year’s legislative session. One recommendation would make clear the ‘‘appointing authority” to emphasize that a state employee’s department head — not the appointments office — is making personnel changes.

Other recommendations seek to protect employees’ constitutional rights so they cannot be fired for their political affiliation. The committee is also recommending additional safeguards against firing employees in management positions without cause, and to make sure employees are notified in writing of their classification and rights when they are hired.