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Six-figure MES payout generates a lot of finger-pointing, but not many answers | COMMENTARY

Roy McGrath, who recently resigned as Gov. Larry Hogan's chief of staff, speaks during a State House news conference in April. His six-figure severance payout from his former post at the Maryland Environmental Service is now getting considerable scrutiny from state lawmakers.
Roy McGrath, who recently resigned as Gov. Larry Hogan's chief of staff, speaks during a State House news conference in April. His six-figure severance payout from his former post at the Maryland Environmental Service is now getting considerable scrutiny from state lawmakers. (Pamela Wood)

As a public service to the people of Maryland, to the state’s elected officials and most especially to those individuals who have any say in how billions of tax dollars are spent these days, we offer this sensible advice: NO HUGE PAYOFFS, regardless of whether you think the governor approves or not. It’s simple, really, particularly during a global COVID-19 pandemic, when a lot of people are hurting, physically and financially, and many private sector employees who are still on the job are nonetheless being forced to take furloughs and pay cuts. Even rank-and-file state employees may yet find themselves taking a hit as Annapolis struggles to deal with declining revenue. So in the midst of all this misery, the possibility that politically connected insiders are getting quarter-million-dollar, tax-financed — and they most certainly are, despite claims to the contrary — payouts is bound to, well, rub people the wrong way.

If there is any good news to be found in the three-hour General Assembly hearing conducted online Tuesday exploring the $238,250 (not counting an additional $56,000 in “expenses”) given Roy McGrath by the Maryland Environmental Service when he left his job as executive director to become Gov. Larry Hogan’s chief of staff, it’s that most everyone with any connection to this transaction appears to be shamed. With the exception, of course, of Mr. McGrath who has since resigned from his State House job, but is thus far sticking to the message that he was fully deserving of this act of munificence.

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Unfortunately, the bad news coming out of the hearing is considerable. First, there is the matter of blame-shifting. MES board members say they had been told by Mr. McGrath that Governor Hogan was just fine and dandy with this payout. Governor Hogan denies this. Board members admit they did not bother to contact the governor. Mr. McGrath is not talking to reporters. So whom are we to believe?

It should be noted that Mr. Hogan and Mr. McGrath have long-standing ties, and the governor describes him admiringly as “relentless” on page 303 of his book, “Still Standing,” and last week said Mr. McGrath was a man “of the highest character.” So Mr. McGrath might be taking a political sword or perhaps he and the governor had a miscommunication or maybe he thought he could speak for the governor because he was about to become his chief aide. All are possible, none are acceptable.

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Equally concerning is what this says about the management of state government in general. As refreshing as it was to hear the current head of MES agree at the hearing’s outset that he indeed runs an independent state agency and is a state employee and is, in fact, not operating a private business, as Mr. McGrath has claimed, the idea that board members should exercise no independent judgment over such a generous payoff is outrageous. Whether Mr. Hogan approved of it or not is irrelevant; a state agency has no business handing hundreds of thousands of dollars to employees on their way out the door, pandemic or no pandemic. Are they just taking orders from above? It appears so. Board members testified at the hearing that Mr. McGrath approached the board about severance, said the governor approved it and then directed board members to issue a news release justifying the payout as business-as-usual and claiming Mr. McGrath has nothing to do with it. They didn’t want to do it, one member said, but were afraid of alienating the governor and his new chief of staff. Wow. What if it had been two years’ salary? Three? What would have triggered their better judgment?

It all sounds a bit like the insider self-dealing scandal at the University of Maryland Medical System of which former Mayor Catherine “Healthy Holly” Pugh was just one high-profile part. Big paydays, no accountability, politically-connected board members, poor explanations fed to the press — all the elements were there, too.

Governor Hogan has pledged to audit the MES. Members of the General Assembly’s Joint Committee on Fair Practices and Personnel Oversight have promised to dig further, too. But that doesn’t necessarily address the more fundamental question of oversight. How many more political appointees within state agencies, quasi-state agencies or public-private partnerships and the like are enriching themselves with tax dollars and no accountability? The state school board’s decision to give a Superintendent Karen Salmon a generous $40,000 raise in July generated zero response from Mr. Hogan.

Is the governor asleep at the wheel? Has he lost interest in the day-to-day management of state government, while he makes the talk show rounds, pitches his book and sells himself as a possible presidential candidate in 2024? Should he not be repeating the message, “NO HUGE PAYOFFS,” so that it’s loud and clear? The General Assembly need not be the only ones looking into reforming MES. The governor appoints five of the nine members on the MES board, along with the executive director, who appoints the other three spots. He ought to be among the first to see the problems. And he ought to be the first in line to both chastise wrongdoing and to set things right.

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The Baltimore Sun editorial board — made up of Opinion Editor Tricia Bishop, Deputy Editor Andrea K. McDaniels, writer Peter Jensen and summer intern Anjali DasSarma — offers opinions and analysis on news and issues relevant to readers. It is separate from the newsroom.

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