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Lawmakers grill former Maryland Environmental Service accountant over big payout to Hogan’s former chief of staff

Hefty travel and meal expenses that Roy McGrath, Gov. Larry Hogan’s former chief of staff, racked up while leading the Maryland Environmental Service received little more than a perfunctory review, the agency’s former treasurer testified Thursday.

McGrath, who left his post at the environmental service to take over as Hogan’s chief of staff in May 2020, resigned just months later, after The Baltimore Sun revealed he’d negotiated a $233,647 payout from the agency, despite continuing to work for the state.

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Michael Harris, whom McGrath recruited in 2017 to handle finances for the agency, told a joint legislative committee that McGrath routinely exceeded spending limits on meals and flouted deadlines to file reimbursement claims as he charged the agency for tens of thousands of dollars in expenses. Harris said he felt he lacked the authority to question the expenses and merely checked to make sure his boss included receipts with his claims.

Ward B. Coe, an attorney leading the General Assembly’s investigation into McGrath’s salary and benefits, told the committee members Thursday that email exchanges showed Matthew Sherring, a top deputy for McGrath, pushed for extensive changes to the minutes of the agency’s board meetings that would have scrubbed references to McGrath’s payout.

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Roy McGrath, then chief of staff to Gov. Larry Hogan, spoke in April 2020 at a news conference at the State House in Annapolis.
Roy McGrath, then chief of staff to Gov. Larry Hogan, spoke in April 2020 at a news conference at the State House in Annapolis. (Pamela Wood)

The email and proposed edits, which Coe displayed during the hearing, showed Sherring lobbying a paralegal at the agency to delete details of the severance deal from the record and to cut McGrath’s claim that Hogan knew of the payout and didn’t object to it from the minutes of a closed-door session.

State Sen. Clarence Lam, a Democrat representing Baltimore and Howard counties, called that “deeply disturbing” and said the exchange of emails “appear to point to an effort to subvert the truth and an intent to deceive.” Lam is co-chair of the committee.

An assistant attorney general advising the environmental service rejected Sherring’s proposed revisions to the minutes.

Hogan has repeatedly denied any knowledge of McGrath’s hefty expenses or his efforts to secure a lucrative payout. The Republican governor ordered an audit of the agency after the six-figure deal came to light.

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Sherring’s emails don’t explicitly state whether McGrath asked for the changes, but Coe said the phrasing — and a text exchange in which McGrath, who’d already left MES, told Sherring that he wanted to review the draft minutes “offline” — suggest that possibility.

An attorney for Sherring declined to comment Thursday on those allegations.

McGrath’s attorney, Bruce L. Marcus, said in a statement to The Sun that the hearing “devolved into a series of unsubstantiated and baseless personal attacks on the former executive director.” He blasted the proceedings as a “dangerous use of investigatory power disguised as a search for facts.”

“Use of public hearings to malign and disparage former officials, in this case Mr. McGrath, in an effort to engage in self-promotion is inconsistent with the statutory purposes for which the committee was authorized,” Marcus wrote. “Mischaracterizations of testimony and events does not advance any legitimate purpose for this committee or any other public body.”

Marcus said the attempted revision of the board minutes was consistent with standard practices at MES and there was “nothing untoward or inappropriate” in trying to remove references to the board’s closed-door decision on McGrath’s payout.

Sherring and McGrath testified last year before the committee. But they largely remained tight-lipped, each invoking their Fifth Amendment rights against self-incrimination more than 150 times.

McGrath created a position for Harris at MES with an annual salary of more than $155,000 and he was hired without a formal interview.

Not long after he started, Harris told lawmakers Thursday, McGrath told him to attend a fundraiser for Hogan’s reelection campaign in December 2017. Harris said he felt he had little choice but to go — fearing it would “put me in an awkward position if I said no.” He bought a ticket in exchange for a $1,000 donation to Hogan’s campaign. Harris said McGrath later solicited $250 for another Hogan fundraiser, and campaign finance records show Harris chipped in $2,000 toward Hogan’s inaugural committee.

After McGrath left to head Hogan’s staff, he filed a flurry of nearly $56,000 in expense claims with the environmental service, and Harris recalled working late into the evening to approve them. Some were months or years old. Coe flagged several, including meals bought inside the Walt Disney World Resort’s Magic Kingdom theme park during a day in which McGrath was supposed to be attending a nearby conference and put in for 12 hours of work on his timecard.

Marcus said the theme park visit was part of the Disney-hosted leadership conference McGrath attended.

The headquarters of the Maryland Environmental Service in Millersville is shown.
The headquarters of the Maryland Environmental Service in Millersville is shown. (Kevin Richardson / Baltimore Sun)

In further transactions with MES after McGrath joined the governor’s staff, Harris said, McGrath asked for an environmental service employee to fetch his vehicle from Government House in Annapolis, take it for cleaning and leave an MES vehicle as a loaner. A text exchange between Harris and the other agency staffer, shown Thursday to the committee, described the request.

A spokesman for Hogan said neither Hogan nor other staffers in the governor’s office were aware of such alleged requests.

Coe also told lawmakers that another former top environmental service official, Beth Wotjen, said that while pressing for his severance package, McGrath claimed he was taking a pay cut to serve as Hogan’s chief of staff. In fact, Coe said documents provided by Hogan’s office showed McGrath negotiated for the same salary at his new job a week before he talked with Wotjen and other MES board members.

Baltimore Sun reporter Pamela Wood contributed to this article.

This article has been updated to include an additional response from McGrath’s attorney.

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