Governor-elect Larry Hogan, at podium, announced 6 cabinet-level appointees at a press conference. They are, from left, Joe Bartenfelder, Van Mitchell, Jimmy Rhee, Linda Singh, General Adjutant of Maryland, Ben Grumbles, and Charlie Evans.
Governor-elect Larry Hogan, at podium, announced 6 cabinet-level appointees at a press conference. They are, from left, Joe Bartenfelder, Van Mitchell, Jimmy Rhee, Linda Singh, General Adjutant of Maryland, Ben Grumbles, and Charlie Evans. (Amy Davis, Baltimore Sun)

Van T. Mitchell, an Annapolis lobbyist who is Gov.-elect Larry Hogan's choice to serve as Maryland's health secretary, said Friday he will recuse himself from considering matters that involve his former clients.

Mitchell is part of a lobbying firm that represents many players in the health care industry — including Noridian Healthcare Solutions, the contractor the state fired over its role in Maryland's botched online health insurance exchange.

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The departing administration of Gov. Martin O'Malley has said it would sue Noridian to recover much of the $73 million it paid on a contract worth $193 million. However, the state has delayed plans for litigation amid reports it is discussing a settlement with the company.

Mitchell, a former Democratic delegate who served as deputy health secretary under Republican Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., said he worked "a little bit" with Noridian as a lobbyist with Manis, Canning & Associates. As a result, Mitchell said, he would not play a role in any discussions of the department's interactions with Noridian.

"I'm not going to be involved in any of that stuff," he said. Mitchell said he would also recuse himself from matters that specifically affect the lobbying firm's other health industry clients, which include CareFirst BlueCross BlueShield and the pharmaceutical giant Pfizer Inc.

"You can't involve yourself in something you've been working on," Mitchell said.

He added that he saw no need to recuse himself in matters that affect former clients as part of a broad policy, such as one affecting all health insurers.

Jennifer Bevan-Dangel, executive director of the watchdog group Common Cause Maryland, said the appointment of a lobbyist to a high-ranking state position "does raise red flags."

"The concern is that the appointee will be speaking with his former clients' voice rather than his own," she said. But Bevan-Dangel said having been a lobbyist should not prevent someone from taking a state position.

"It's not a disqualifier, but it creates a greater burden for transparency," she said.

Mitchell's pledge to recuse himself in matters specifically affecting former clients is reassuring, Bevan-Dangel said. "That's clearly an excellent position to take to ensure that there isn't a conflict of interest," she said.

Craig Holman of the ethics advocacy group Public Citizen said Mitchell's appointment reflects a "classic revolving door" through which people move in and out of government.

Holman said it's reassuring that Mitchell plans to recuse himself from decisions directly involving former clients but added that Maryland's policy on former lobbyists is too lax. He said Obama administration officials had to sign a form pledging to recuse themselves when they had conflicts, but there is no such requirement in Maryland.

Hogan's transition team released a statement defending the nomination.

"Van has a unique and deep understanding of the Department of Health and Mental Hygiene and is committed to bringing together the many stakeholders in health care to forge our next steps forward in health policy," it said. "Governor-elect Hogan is pleased to have this proven manager and leader on his team."

Hogan named Mitchell as his nominee last week. The appointment, like all Cabinet nominations, goes to the state Senate for a vote.

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State Sen. Jamie Raskin, the new chairman of the Senate Executive Nominations Committee, said his panel will thoroughly vet Mitchell's appointment as it would all of Hogan's high-level nominations.

"He obviously has a distinguished career in public life as well as a lobbying career, and we would take everything into account," said Raskin, a Montgomery County Democrat. "Having been a lobbyist is obviously neither a job requirement nor a disqualifying factor. It's something to be taken into account with the person's entire career."

Raskin said the committee will examine the willingness of all nominees to disclose potential conflicts of interest and to recuse themselves when necessary.

Mitchell would likely come into contact with many of his firm's former clients as health secretary.

They include doctor and hospital groups and the state's dominant health insurance company, CareFirst. The health department oversees hospital quality and works with other state agencies that regulate prices. The department's Board of Physicians oversees doctor's licenses.

As health secretary, Mitchell would sit on the board of the state's health exchange, created to implement the Affordable Care Act. The board voted to end its contract with Noridian because of the health exchange website's dysfunction.

Mitchell's firm also represents beer and tobacco interests, while the health department uses a tax on tobacco to pay for some Medicaid benefits. The department also advocates for programs to cut teen smoking and underage drinking.

One health care advocate said he would continue making the case for taxing tobacco both to expand Medicaid and to cut down on the number of teens who smoke. Hogan has said he wants to reverse some tax increases and would consider cuts to Medicaid, the federal-state health program for the poor.

"We have to keep the progress we've made," said Vincent DeMarco, president of the Maryland Health Care for All Coalition, which pushed for the 2007 tobacco tax increase and plans to seek another this year.

"There was a lot of talk during the election about repealing tax increases," he said. "We hope and are cautiously optimistic that a repeal of the tobacco tax will not be considered because it's saving lives and money."

DeMarco said he knows Mitchell, considers him "a good listener" and expects all voices to be heard.

Mitchell, 59, said he joined Manis, Canning seven years ago to help the Manis family handle the transition from the leadership of George Manis, who died last year, to a new generation led by Nicholas G. Manis.

The firm is one of the most prominent lobbying groups in Annapolis, having beefed up its clout in recent years with the hirings of John Favazza, a former chief of staff to House Speaker Michael E. Busch; and Joseph C. Bryce, a former legislative director for O'Malley.

Mitchell was deputy state health secretary from 2004 to 2007. Before that, he served in the House of Delegates, representing Charles County, from 1995 to 2004. As a lawmaker, Mitchell chaired the House Appropriations subcommittee overseeing the health department budget.

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