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Probe of rumor-monger should be a limited one

February 15, 2005

Was Joseph Steffen an aide who was simply overzealous in supporting his boss? Or was he part of an organized campaign designed to bring down one of the likely Democratic opponents of Maryland Gov. Robert Ehrlich?

That's the question we hope will be answered by a legislative investigation that Ehrlich on Friday said that he welcomes.

Steffen was an aide who had worked for Ehrlich since the governor's days in Congress. Depending on which party's legislators you're talking to, he was either a good organizer or a henchman dedicated to clearing agencies of staffers who didn't back Ehrlich's agenda.

Steffen was brought down after it was discovered that he had encouraged the spread of rumors on a Web site saying that Baltimore Mayor Martin O'Malley had fathered a child with a TV news reporter and had separated from his wife.

The governor told The Associated Press that this "was one person doing something he shouldn't have done."

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Democrats aren't so sure, with House Speaker Michael Busch and Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller saying they are convinced that Steffen did not act alone.

The probe is important because state employees who engage in political activities while on the job are not serving all of the people, but only the party they support. No matter which party is in power, it is not right to use tax money collected from all the people to support the cause of a favored few.

However, we agree with Sen. Miller, who said he didn't want to get into a a far-ranging Whitewater-style probe of the administration's hiring and firing practices. Spending lots of taxpayers' money without a more compelling reason than this would be a grave mistake.

For his part, Ehrlich said that if there is anyone who would be excluded from his administration, it is those who are not "part of the program."

As an example, Ehrlich said that an employee of the Department of Transportation who was not in favor of the Inter- County Connector commuter road would have "a problem."

In our view, the chief executive of the state has a right not to have his policies undermined by people within the government. He is the one who was elected by the people.

On the other hand, if there's only one right way for state employees to think on any issue, Ehrlich may have a bigger problem than this probe.

Once a decision is made, employees have an obligation to support it. But until that happens, employees need to be able to be frank and honest with the governor over the policies he is considering.

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