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Dan Rodricks: Sending regrets for Roy McGrath’s pity party | COMMENTARY

Roy McGrath, chief executive officer of the Maryland Environmental Service, speaks during a news conference at the State House in Annapolis, Md., on Wednesday, April 15, 2020. On Tuesday, Oct. 5, 2021, the Maryland U.S. attorney announced that McGrath, Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan’s former chief of staff, has been indicted in federal court for allegedly defrauding a state agency he led. (Pamela Wood/The Baltimore Sun via AP)
Roy McGrath, chief executive officer of the Maryland Environmental Service, speaks during a news conference at the State House in Annapolis, Md., on Wednesday, April 15, 2020. On Tuesday, Oct. 5, 2021, the Maryland U.S. attorney announced that McGrath, Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan’s former chief of staff, has been indicted in federal court for allegedly defrauding a state agency he led. (Pamela Wood/The Baltimore Sun via AP) (Pamela Wood/AP)

Based on the federal indictment against him, Roy McGrath, former chief of staff to Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan, does not appear to be a criminal mastermind. Prosecutors accuse him of a “scheme to defraud,” but McGrath’s alleged transgression was so banal it barely makes the cut of anything you might call a “scheme.”

The six-count indictment issued on Tuesday against him portrays a bureaucrat feeling entitled to tribute for doing the people of Maryland the favor of working for us and employing a little deceit to get a bonus.

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According to federal prosecutors, McGrath wangled a six-figure severance from one state job before taking another state job, and he did so by saying Hogan approved of the deal. Hogan says he did no such thing, but the people who authorized the severance, the board of Maryland Environmental Services, apparently felt they had to give McGrath the lovely parting gift. (A separate state criminal information, also filed against McGrath Tuesday, accuses him of illegally recording phone conversations with Hogan, among others.)

As I said, as “schemes” go, the allegations are not very imaginative, certainly nothing in the class of former Baltimore Mayor Catherine Pugh’s lucrative “Healthy Holly” book tour.

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But, as ordinary as the “scheme” prosecutors attribute to McGrath appears, I want to give the man credit for a defense that reveals an inchoate skill for poetry and pathos.

Last year, after The Baltimore Sun reported that he had received a $233,650 severance from MES before taking the top job on Hogan’s staff, he called the front-page article a result of “the sad politics of personal destruction.” (I thought it was the result of reporting by the Sun’s Pamela Wood, but OK.)

I must say: That’s a nice turn of phrase — “the sad politics of personal destruction” — melancholy but defiant, with a little sigh of surrender to it.

McGrath apparently saw the public reporting of his sweet deal — one year’s salary after serving as MES executive director for less than four — as a personal attack. He seemed to suggest that he was the victim of some dark force, a common claim in today’s political climate, that targets successful people with unfair or false allegations.

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Shortly after Ms. Wood broke the news, The Sun published a commentary by McGrath further defending his severance as a bonus for “exceptional performance” while he was director of an independent state agency. He twice used the phrase “record-setting financial results” to describe the agency’s success during his tenure. He suggested that MES is not funded by taxpayers, calling it “a not-for-profit, public corporation.” Essentially, McGrath considered himself more like a private-sector executive than the manager of a bureaucracy.

In the op-ed, McGrath argued that he deserved the bonus, both for his time as executive director of MES and for his long hours of service to the Hogan administration during the first months of the pandemic. This sounds like a reasonable defense that might prompt jurors to ask, “What’s the big deal?”

But there’s the problem of McGrath allegedly suggesting that the governor approved the severance; the indictment says that was false. And his argument that his position at MES was not a “state job” seems shaky — for good reason.

Indeed, MES is an unusual state agency, but, as The Sun’s reporters have pointed out, 95% of its revenue comes from contracts with local governments and state agencies for environmental and public works projects. It also receives federal grants. The governor appoints the executive director and most of the members of the board, subject to state Senate approval.

This, of course, will all play out down the road.

McGrath faces numerous federal and state charges, but it’s up to prosecutors to prove those charges. As with all defendants, McGrath gets the presumption of innocence. He strongly protests the charges against him (after the indictment, he said he was being “politically persecuted”), and his lawyer says he’s done nothing criminal.

McGrath could stand trial and be acquitted or convicted. He could take a plea deal. A judge could throw out the charges. Anything is possible, though I should note: The U.S. Attorney’s Office in Baltimore has a pretty strong track record on corruption cases going back 50 years.

Which brings us again to “the sad politics of personal destruction.”

When McGrath first used the phrase, it sounded like something the late Spiro T. Agnew might have said when he was under investigation.

Before federal prosecutors caught up with him in 1973, Agnew had been taking kickbacks as Baltimore County executive, Maryland governor and even as vice president of the United States. Serving as Richard Nixon’s Veep and media attack dog, Agnew used phrases such as “nattering nabobs of negativism” and “pusillanimous pussyfooters.” He would have liked “the sad politics of personal destruction,” though I suspect the combative Agnew might have replaced “sad” with “poisonous” to satisfy his appetite for alliteration and give the phrase more bite.

As for McGrath’s usage of the phrase, as good as it sounds, ultimately it fails as a defense. It’s an attempt to arouse pity. Isn’t it sad, he seems to be saying, that a fellow can’t get what he deserves without being hounded for doing so?

I’m no lawyer, and certainly not a folksy country one, but that dog won’t hunt.

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