Hogan administration doesn't plan to file ethics charge against Miller

Gov. Larry Hogan's office does not plan to file an ethics complaint against the president of the state Senate, who they accused of pressing the administration to interfere in a decision to approve open-heart surgery at a hospital in Annapolis.

Doug Mayer, a spokesman for the Republican governor, said Friday that the governor's office has "no plans" to file an ethics complaint against Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller.

Miller has not responded to Mayer's claim this week that the Senate leader asked the Hogan administration to intervene in the open-heart surgery decision, which was made by the independent Maryland Health Care Commission. He did call Mayer a "pipsqueak" and "monkey grinder."

Mayer did not specifically say what Miller expected from the administration.

"The conversation didn't go that far," Mayer said, because administration officials believed it was wrong for the governor or his staff to intervene in deliberations over whether Anne Arundel Medical Center would receive a certificate of need, which would allow them to start an open-heart surgery program. The commission approved such a certificate for the hospital, but a Prince George's County judge has halted its award while the court reviews the process.

Mayer also has suggested that Miller held up a Senate confirmation vote on Hogan's pick for health secretary, Dennis Schrader, making it contingent on the administration intervening in the open-heart decision. Hogan withdrew Schrader's appointment in the waning days of the 90-day General Assembly session, then re-appointed him after lawmakers adjourned in April.

Both Schrader and Planning Secretary Wendi Peters — who Hogan also re-appointed after withdrawing her nomination — are working without pay. Democratic Treasurer Nancy K. Kopp decided to stop payment of the two department heads after Democratic Attorney General Brian E. Frosh opined that it would be illegal to pay them. The legislature inserted language in this year's budget prohibiting the state from paying appointees who did not win confirmation before the Assembly adjourned.

Hogan is attending a National Governors Association event in Rhode Island and Mayer said he's not available for comment.

Miller has been among the Prince George's County officials who have expressed concern that the health care commission approved Anne Arundel Medical Center's request to offer open-heart surgery, because it would compete for patients with a new, partially taxpayer-funded teaching hospital set to break ground in Prince George's later this year.

Miller's chief of staff, Victoria L. Gruber, said in an email that she attended a meeting with Miller and Schrader in which Miller expressed his support for the Prince George's hospital and his frustration about Anne Arundel Medical Center's application. The meeting was "very cordial," Gruber wrote.

Ethical concerns about state lawmakers are handled by the Joint Committee on Legislative Ethics, comprised of senators and delegates. The co-chairs of the committee, Sen. Ed DeGrange Sr. and Del. Adrienne Jones, declined to comment Friday on whether the committee would review the allegations involving Miller.

The ethics committee can undertake an investigation based on a complaint, a request from the legislature's presiding officers or by a majority vote of the committee.

The head of the advocacy group Common Cause Maryland said it would be difficult to prove any ethical violation by Miller — such as abusing the power of his office — without more evidence.

"Certainly, if there's truth behind the allegations, that's a very significant ethics concern," said Jennifer Bevan-Dangel, executive director of Common Cause Maryland. "However, in a pre-election year, it's really important to verify before we jump too quickly on it."

Bevan-Dangel said ethics investigators would need more concrete information to prove that Miller abused his power.

"If there was any recorded evidence that gives a neutral perspective on this — an email, something in writing — then that would be good fodder for the ethics committee to take up," she said. "If it's all verbal allegations, that's tricky to investigate in a fair manner."

The Maryland Health Care Commission operates independently, and the governor's office does not have a role in its decision-making process, said Ben Steffen, the commission's executive director.

"The decisions of the commission pertaining to a certificate of need are not reviewable by the executive branch, but are appealable directly to the court," Steffen said.

That's what happened in the case of Anne Arundel Medical Center's approval for open-heart surgery. Both Baltimore Washington Medical Center, which also had applied for open-heart surgery, and Dimensions Healthcare System, which operates Prince George's Hospital Center, have appealed to the court. A Prince George's County Circuit judge put the certificate of need on hold while the case is considered.

A spokesman for Anne Arundel County Executive Steve Schuh said he's confident the program's certificate will be upheld.

"We need to ensure an independent, fact-based process and when that process plays out, we are confident we will get a cardiac care center," said Owen McEvoy, a spokesman for the Republican county executive.

Prince George's County Executive Rushern Baker maintains that it was inappropriate to award open-heart surgery approval to Anne Arundel, which would compete with the planned Prince George's County regional hospital.

Baker said Hogan let the county down on his promises to make sure the hospital would be a success. First, Hogan fought with the legislature over state funding for the hospital and now, didn't do anything to stop what he says is competition that could damage the new hospital.

"You don't want to build a brand-new, almost $600 million hospital, and have another heart surgery approved less than 25 miles away," said Baker, a Democrat who is also running for governor. "That just sets up competition for something the state, the county and private sector put dollars into."

Baltimore Sun reporter Michael Dresser contributed to this article.

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