By CHRIS YAKAITIS
Capital News Service
ANNAPOLIS - A special joint committee of the General Assembly Thursday approved a 135-page report that criticizes Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich's administration for politically motivated firings and recommends changing laws to protect state employees.
"There is evidence that there were some separations that were made for political reasons, in violation of state law and First Amendment rights of employees," said Ward B. Coe III, counsel for the Special Joint Committee on State Employee Rights and Protections. "That leads to a recommendation to strengthen the law of the state . . . That should not happen."
Seven members of the committee - all Democrats - voted in favor of the report, which identifies 10 areas that need clarification or further legislation to protect workers from meaningless firings. The four Republican members of the committee boycotted the work session and issued their own 40-page rebuttal of the report, calling it an "expensive, partisan exercise."
"I am embarrassed by the draft report," Sen. Minority Leader J. Lowell Stoltzfus, R-Somerset, wrote in a cover letter that accompanied the report. "It should have been reviewed prior to it's [sic] release by Legislative Services to correct the glaring mistakes of name misspellings, misidentification of agencies, and errors in presented 'facts.'"
Stoltzfus wrote that the investigation has cost taxpayers more than $1 million.
Coe reviewed the committee's report before the assembled members, focusing on recommendations to clarify "illegal political terminations" as any firing that creates "a position for a new employee with regard to the new employee's political affiliation, belief or opinion" and to prohibit the Department of Budget and Management from firing state workers on behalf of the Governor's Office or Appointments Office.
The committee also recommended: clarifying the provision that state employees may only be fired by the "lawfully designated appointing authority"; offering a buy-in option for state employees close to receiving a pension; creating a private right of action in state court for political firings; notifying state employees of their classification status and any changes to it in writing; and studying the designation of "at-will" employees within the state system.
The report now goes to the joint Legislative Policy Committee, and is expected to be debated in next year's legislative session.
A subcommittee of the Legislative Policy Committee, the special committee convened in August 2005 to investigate a series of complaints from former state workers who claimed their firings were politically motivated. In some cases, complainants said enlarged mug shots of themselves were posted in their buildings and security guards escorted them from their desks.
After approving the report, the committee held a closed executive session to discuss possible prosecution stemming from conflicting testimony given by Appointments Secretary Lawrence J. Hogan Jr. and an affidavit from former Maryland Environmental Service Director John S. Sparkman.
"There's some very serious consequences to not telling the truth to this committee. And I was really personally outraged with the conflicting information we got," said Thomas M. Middleton, D-Charles, the committee's co-chair. "It is illegal to come before this committee and give sworn testimony and lie to this committee."
The committee has already filed suit to compel answers from three men who were evasive and uncooperative when testifying earlier this year. Former Ehrlich aide Joseph F. Steffen Jr., former transportation department manager Gregory J. Maddalone and Public Service Commission operations director Craig B. Chesek are all scheduled to attend court hearings later this month.
Lynne B. Porter, executive assistant for the Department of Legislative Services, said Coe was directed to examine the conflicting testimonies from Hogan and Sparkman and report back to the special committee, which is scheduled to disband 10 days after it receives depositions from Steffen, Maddalone and Chesek. "If Ward's review extends past that time, he will make whatever recommendations he needs to make to the Legislative Policy Committee," she said.