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Maryland Environmental Service deputy director: McGrath changed priorities, wasn’t held accountable for expenses

“Unfortunately, the employee morale was not good at all ... He did not relate well to the employees,” former Maryland Environmental Service deputy director Beth Wojton said of the leadership of Roy McGrath, who later became Gov. Larry Hogan's chief of staff.
“Unfortunately, the employee morale was not good at all ... He did not relate well to the employees,” former Maryland Environmental Service deputy director Beth Wojton said of the leadership of Roy McGrath, who later became Gov. Larry Hogan's chief of staff. (Pamela Wood)

As Maryland lawmakers investigate practices at the Maryland Environmental Service, they heard Wednesday from the service’s former deputy director, who described a culture under former head Roy McGrath of a lack of accountability, shifting priorities and unpopular decisions.

The General Assembly’s Joint Committee on Fair Practices and State Employee Oversight is reviewing McGrath’s tenure at the independent state agency after learning the MES board gave him a six-figure severance package this spring as he left to become Gov. Larry Hogan’s chief of staff. McGrath resigned last month after trying to defend his severance and bonuses as customary for the agency.

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Beth Wojton, who worked at the environmental service for 32 years, told legislators that McGrath focused on trying to win private contracts, which are a small percentage of the agency’s business. She also said he traveled frequently and provided no documentation of the purposes for many of his considerable expenses.

She also said McGrath was “very guarded and secretive” and fostered an unpleasant work environment.

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“Unfortunately, the employee morale was not good at all. ... He did not relate well to the employees,” she said during the online hearing.

McGrath, in an email to The Baltimore Sun, responded to some of Wojton’s comments. He said her remarks on “employee engagement are puzzling.” He noted that his initiatives included all-staff meetings, an awards program for employees, a mentorship program and mailing birthday cards to employees.

The committee has been trying to sort out exactly how McGrath negotiated a payout worth more than $238,000 when he left to lead Hogan’s staff on June 1. After his departure, MES also reimbursed him for more than $55,000 in past expenses.

There have been conflicting statements about what Hogan knew about the severance and when. Hogan said he didn’t approve it, but later acknowledged McGrath told him he’d need to work out his finances with the environmental service’s board of directors before coming aboard.

MES board members who approved the severance and Wojton testified that McGrath represented that Hogan supported the severance. Hogan has said he had no role in the payout.

Del. Erek Barron, co-chair of the committee, said he hopes McGrath will agree to be questioned by the committee. McGrath has twice turned down invitations to testify.

“He could explain further why the governor seems to have a different impression of the payout approval than he does,” said Barron, a Prince George’s County Democrat. “And maybe he can also explain his tenure and also explain the payout, the expenditures, the leave.”

The environmental service has released hundreds of pages of documents to The Baltimore Sun and to the committee detailing internal policies and McGrath’s extensive expenses. MES paid part of McGrath’s tuition for graduate coursework in business, including a $14,475 training program at Harvard University, and for other seminars.

Lawmakers are concerned about what appears to be significant spending with lax oversight at an agency that is an arm of the state, at a time when coronavirus-induced financial pressures may necessitate cutbacks across state government.

MES operates largely on public tax dollars, with local and state governments providing 95% of its revenue. Governments pay the service to carry out environmental and public works projects, such as operating landfills and sewage plants, dredging waterways and monitoring groundwater for contaminants.

Wojton told lawmakers that McGrath worked at MES headquarters office in Millersville 12 to 18 hours per week and, when he was there, used a back stairwell to avoid employees. The rest of the time, he worked from home or on trips that weren’t always explained to senior staff or the board, she said.

McGrath was reimbursed for trips to Israel; Italy; Las Vegas; Orlando, Florida; Phoenix; New York and other locales for meetings and conferences, according to documents. He repeatedly stayed in hotel rooms in Baltimore and Washington, D.C., and at least once in Annapolis. He was reimbursed for lunches with other MES employees and officials from Hogan’s administration.

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Sen. Addie Eckardt, an Eastern Shore Republican, asked if McGrath would report back on his trips during board of directors meetings.

“Not typically, he did not,” Wojton said.

Wojton also said there was “no documentation” of the reasons for many of McGrath’s expenditures.

After McGrath was announced as the governor’s new chief of staff in late May, Wojton took on the duties of director. She soon learned about the $55,000 worth of expenses, which she said the agency’s financial director had approved without her knowledge.

Wojton rebuffed a McGrath request to maintain access to MES’ account for Workday human resources software. And she opposed his request to transfer the MES-owned vehicle he used to the governor’s office.

In a short tenure as acting director, Wojton said she put a hold on an expansion project for the MES building and had key employees report to her in an effort to hold them accountable. Wojton said she worried that McGrath would continue to be involved with MES operations even after joining the governor’s office.

Ultimately, she was passed over for the position of director, and was offered a different job within MES. She resigned.

“I didn’t want to leave the agency, but felt it would still be under Roy’s control,” she said.

It appears that McGrath did remain involved. During the hearing, lawmakers showed an email from the governor’s top lawyer urging McGrath to end involvement with MES and “avoid all communications with MES personnel.” The email was sent Aug. 2, two months after McGrath left for the State House.

McGrath acted against that advice notably when, on Aug. 14, after The Sun broke the news of his severance, he texted the new MES director, Charles Glass, about damage control. Glass told lawmakers last week that McGrath asked to have the agency issue a news release defending the payout, which it did.

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Wojton said that when McGrath first joined as director at the end of 2016, he would participate in “MES 101″ meetings, where a team would travel to local governments to explain the types of services they offered, such as operating landfills and dredging waterways.

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“That was in the beginning,” Wojton said. “Then after that, not so much.”

Instead, McGrath focused on landing private businesses as customers. He traveled to conferences and meetings frequently and insisted MES hire a public relations firm, Wojton said.

“He was very concerned with image and appearance,” Wojton said.

Sen. Clarence Lam, a Howard County Democrat and co-chair of the committee, said the committee will keep reviewing documents and gathering information. Because MES and its board of directors were created by state law, the legislature can change some of its structure.

Lam noted that McGrath has responded to some media inquiries, but not to inquiries from the committee.

“Really, it’s remarkable when you look at the level of absolute hubris here. ... He has a lot to answer for,” Lam said.

Asked Wednesday via email whether he would testify at a future committee hearing, McGrath did not offer a response.

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