Why is the Md. Governor's Appointments Office interfering in state hiring?

Imagine applying for a job in a Maryland state agency: You are well-qualified and have gone through a rigorous interview process with the supervisor and colleagues of the position you are seeking. You are then asked to speak with staff in Annapolis where you are asked whether you are married and have children. You are later informed that you have been denied the job.

Or imagine this scenario: You are a current state employee, your evaluations are stellar, and your supervisor is recommending you for a promotion. You complete a written questionnaire and participate in an interview where you are asked many probing personal questions. And then you never hear about your promotion again.

For long-time Maryland residents, it would not be hard to mistake these scenarios for something that happened during the Ehrlich administration, when press accounts confirmed the worst fears of civil servants: that state employees were being hired and fired based on their political affiliation. But these are examples of situations that have been described to me over the past year, under Gov. Larry Hogan.

Multiple people have come forward to me with stories of applicants and current employees under consideration for open positions or promotions undergoing extreme vetting by the Governor’s Appointments Office, which, I’m told, has also gone so far as to overrule the decision of an office supervisor in selecting a candidate to fill a vacant position.

In many instances, these individuals said they were required to complete a form — available on the Appointments Office’s website — typically reserved for political appointees to boards and commissions. It asks probing questions about social media profiles, delinquent debt, credit history, controversies in one’s personal life and all organization affiliations over the past five years. In other instances, I’m told that appointments office staff members have asked individuals about their marital status and the number of children they have — questions that are prohibited by basic employee protections.

This interference in the routine hiring of new state employees and in the promotions of current state employees — specifically for non-political appointee positions grade 18 or higher — has reportedly occurred in several departments of state government. Yet there appears to be no formal written policy governing such involvement. If there is a policy at all, it’s verbal and conveniently without a paper trail.

As a state lawmaker, I find this deeply concerning because this is not supposed to be happening again. After employees came forward with similar tales of appointments office intervention under Governor Ehrlich, the Maryland General Assembly investigated and chronicled their findings in a 2006 report. Among them:

  • “Units of State government were pressured to review all at-will positions with the goal of considering replacing personnel with employees dedicated to carrying out the policies of the Administration.”
  • “The [Governor’s] Appointments Office, which has traditionally been used for the appointment of boards and commissions, was placed in charge of the effort to replace at-will employees and the Governor delegated hiring and firing authority to the Appointments Secretary.”
  • “Employees were unreasonably barred from being considered for other State positions, an unusual practice that was authorized by the Governor’s Appointments Office.”
  • “Some State officials did not know the law with respect to … whether political considerations could be used [in the hiring and firing of state employees].”

State law enacted after the legislature’s investigation explicitly prohibits the appointments office from directing or overruling “an appointing authority … on any decision to appoint, promote, transfer, reassign, discipline, or terminate an employee.” Unfortunately, no criminal penalty was stipulated for violations of this law, and so the only recourse available to those harmed is to file a civil lawsuit. It’s become clear that this protection is insufficient for our state employees.

That is why I have sponsored legislation — House Bill 1788 — that will enable the State Ethics Commission to investigate claims of the Governor’s Appointments Office involvement in the hiring and promotions of state employees. A hearing for this bill is set for Tuesday.

This practice is wrong, and it needs to stop, regardless of the motivations behind it. Without further information from the appointments office, it is difficult to know what criteria are being used to gauge appropriate employment or promotions of state employees. This leaves open the possibility that our state workforce could be politicized, and that is unacceptable.

In a state like Maryland, where civil servants — whether on the federal, state or local levels — comprise such a large portion of our workforce, politicization of government employees is a very real fear, particularly in our current environment. This bill is a simple but necessary step forward to protect our state employees: No well-qualified candidate should ever be denied a state position or current state employee denied a promotion due to the interventions of the Governor’s Appointments Office based on unknown criteria from an unwritten policy.

Clarence Lam is a Democrat representing Baltimore and Howard Counties in the Maryland House of Delegates. His email is Clarence.Lam@house.state.md.us.

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