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Amid UMMS leadership shake-up, a longtime Democratic insider holds on — despite questions

Amid UMMS leadership shake-up, a longtime Democratic insider holds on — despite questions
Mark Wasserman is one of the University of Maryland Medical System's top executives -- but he's managed to hold on through the board's self-dealing scandal. (Karl Merton Ferron / Baltimore Sun)

For two decades, Mark Wasserman’s job has been to know the University of Maryland Medical System’s business and to bolster it by leveraging his long-standing connections with elected officials, lawmakers and other influential people.

A consistent face in Democratic power circles in Baltimore and Annapolis since his days as an aide to the late Gov. William Donald Schaefer, Wasserman joined UMMS as its senior vice president of external affairs in 1997. Last year, he was paid nearly $510,000 to be the guy for UMMS who could open doors and bend ears.

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So when The Baltimore Sun first began reporting in March that a third of UMMS’ volunteer board members had lucrative contracts with the system — including then-Mayor Catherine Pugh, for whom Wasserman served as a top campaign adviser — an outraged Gov. Larry Hogan called a meeting in Annapolis. Wasserman, one of UMMS’ top executives; his longtime boss, then-UMMS CEO Robert Chrencik; and then-UMMS board Chairman Stephen A. Burch were to brief Hogan and Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller on the matter.

When Wasserman was a no-show, the Republican governor grew frustrated and raised Wasserman’s absence as an issue, according to two sources in the room who requested anonymity to discuss the private conversation candidly.

“Where’s Wasserman?” the governor asked. “How come he’s not in this meeting? He’s been in every other meeting. Isn’t it kind of funny he’s not here? Was he involved with making the deal with the mayor? He’s going to have to answer some questions, too.”

Hogan also expressed frustration with what he saw as Chrencik’s refusal to answer basic questions about the deals, such as who authorized the book deal with Pugh and who knew about it.

“It was a raking over the coals. It was the most brutal thing you’ve ever seen,” one of the sources said.

After the meeting, Miller said he couldn’t get a straight answer.

“They didn't tell us who authorized the check, who signed the check and who approved the deal,” he said.

In the months since that meeting, Wasserman has not responded to repeated requests for comment from The Baltimore Sun. Never a public voice for the institution, Wasserman has followed directives from crisis communications experts hired by the system, advising executives not to comment publicly amid the scandal.

He also was publicly silent as the state legislature passed a bill forcing UMMS’ entire board to step down by the end of the year, to be replaced or reappointed by Hogan, and other UMMS officials have resigned all around him — including Pugh, Chrencik, Burch, five other board members and four other top executives.

Wasserman’s name did not appear in a report on the system’s contracts with board members that was completed for UMMS by the California-based firm Nygren Consulting and released by the hospital system last week.

Allies defended Wasserman, emphatically arguing his honesty.

UMMS board member D. Bruce Poole, a former state delegate and former Maryland Democratic Party chair, said that while the early questions about who knew what and when were valid, “every indication is that Mark was not involved” in the self-dealing or Pugh’s deals.

“People had questions for a couple months as to who was involved, but now that there has been this pretty thorough sifting, some people have been cleared — and one of them is Mark, which really doesn't surprise me,” Poole said.

The hospital system has not said as much explicitly. It has declined to answer questions about what Wasserman knew of the board members’ contracts with the system.

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Wasserman’s name did not even appear in a statement earlier this month in which UMMS gave another system executive — Kristin Jones Bryce — the title Wasserman has held since 1997. When asked about Wasserman’s status, UMMS spokesman Michael Schwartzberg said only that Wasserman remained a “valued member of the UMMS senior leadership team” who will be working “in conjunction” with Bryce.

Schwartzberg would not provide the current salaries for Wasserman or Bryce, who also has been named chief of staff to acting CEO John Ashworth.

Bryce, a former aide to the late House Speaker Michael Busch, joined UMMS in 2015 as vice president of external affairs. Some viewed her as Wasserman’s heir apparent, believing he would retire soon as he approaches 70.

Wasserman interacted with board members pretty routinely — including Pugh.

When U.S. Rep. Elijah Cummings cut an ad for Pugh’s 2016 mayoral campaign, they filmed a scene in front of the University of Maryland Medical Center downtown in which Cummings was flanked by Pugh and Wasserman, who also served on Pugh’s mayoral transition team.

When Sen. Nancy King was preparing to join the UMMS board in December, UMMS officials arranged for her to have an “orientation meeting” with a small circle of top system executives — including Wasserman.

And in February, after Sen. Jill Carter introduced legislation that would bar UMMS board members from having business with the system — prompting The Sun to uncover the questionable contracts — Wasserman was quickly involved, shooting off an email to Jim Smith, another UMMS board member serving as a top aide to Pugh, with the subject, “What is the mayor’s relationship with Jill Carter?”

Wasserman started his career as a planner for Baltimore in 1974 before becoming the city’s physical development coordinator in the early 1980s, under then-Mayor Schaefer. In 1986, he managed Schaefer’s successful gubernatorial campaign and went on to serve as Schaefer’s chief of staff.

He then served as secretary of the Maryland Department of Economic and Employment Development from 1991 to 1995, when he left public service for a job with a bank. He joined the private nonprofit medical system — which receives substantial state funding, and has its governance structure controlled by the governor’s office — in 1997.

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Since then, he has been a key player for UMMS, chatting with lawmakers about issues important to the system and regularly attending UMMS board meetings to brief board members on issues, but also coach them on which lawmakers could help and how the board members might leverage their own relationships in Annapolis.

What role he will play at UMMS moving forward is unclear.

Hogan, when asked for comment, suggested Wasserman shouldn’t have a role.

“The executives who made ill-advised decisions need to go, that’s been my bottom line since all of this was first uncovered,” Hogan said in a statement. “UMMS has made some leadership changes, and I appreciate that, but they still have to do more to restore public trust.”

Several other leading state politicians did not respond to requests for comment on Wasserman, including Cummings, Miller and House Speaker Adrienne Jones. Steven Silverman, Pugh’s attorney, declined to comment.

Longtime friends and admirers of Wasserman said he is an invaluable asset for UMMS who they do not believe had any knowledge of the board contracts, and who could help the system transition through a difficult period ahead after so many other top-level departures.

"In the world of Maryland politics, the number of people who consistently know what they are talking about and can be trusted is pretty small, but Mark is within that circle, and I think that's why he's had longevity,” Poole said.

Tim Maloney, a former Democratic legislator from Prince George's County who is close to Wasserman and Hogan, said Wasserman told him he didn’t know about Pugh’s deal — in which she was paid $500,000 by UMMS for 100,000 copies of her self-published “Healthy Holly” books.

“He told me that he knew nothing about the mayor and the books, at all, and I believe him. I totally believe him,” Maloney said. “He has a reputation of great and ethical service to the state.”

Friends who worked alongside Wasserman under Schaefer praised him, too.

“He is the most incredibly upstanding, wonderful, dedicated person that I have ever met,” said Lainy LeBow-Sachs, one of Schaefer’s closest aides, who worked with Wasserman for decades. “I would stand from the top of a building and yell he has great integrity.”

LeBow-Sachs said she does not know the specifics of Wasserman’s work at UMMS or of the contracts held by board members, but feels certain Wasserman had nothing to do with the contracts because “he is just an incredibly honest person.”

She said Schaefer depended on Wasserman “1,000 percent” and “had the highest regard for him” — and that is saying a lot because Schaefer “really knew people inside and out and only had the best people around him.”

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