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Many questions, few answers as associate of Maryland Gov. Hogan’s ex-chief of staff testifies in investigation

The Maryland Environmental Service headquarters is shown Aug. 28, 2020, in Millersville.
The Maryland Environmental Service headquarters is shown Aug. 28, 2020, in Millersville. (Kevin Richardson / Baltimore Sun)

Maryland lawmakers who are investigating a six-figure payout that Gov. Larry Hogan’s former chief of staff, Roy McGrath, received from his prior state job got few answers from one of McGrath’s key lieutenants Thursday.

Over the course of 2½ hours of questioning, Matthew Sherring invoked his Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination more than 150 times. Sherring did not answer any questions about what he knew of the package worth more than $238,000 that McGrath negotiated when he left the Maryland Environmental Service to join Hogan’s team June 1.

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Sherring also wouldn’t answer questions about how he got his job alongside McGrath at the environmental service, what he did there or why he spent $91,000 in expenses on 55 trips in just over three years.

“On the advice of counsel, and pursuant to my constitutional rights, I respectfully decline to answer that question,” Sherring said repeatedly during the video hearing, which he attended from his lawyer’s office in Towson.

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Most of the questions came from Ward B. Coe, an attorney hired by the General Assembly to help with the investigation. After Sherring continued to take the Fifth, Coe posed this final question to Sherring: “Your explanation to this committee is that you decline to answer about those trips and expenses because the answers may tend to incriminate you, is that correct?”

In response, Sherring again invoked his Fifth Amendment right.

State lawmakers who are investigating McGrath had hoped Sherring would fill in gaps about McGrath’s payout, particularly what the Republican governor knew about it. The former MES deputy director and three board members previously testified that McGrath led them to believe that Hogan endorsed the deal.

Hogan has said he did not approve the payout. He has acknowledged he knew generally that McGrath was working out his financial situation before joining the governor’s team.

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McGrath resigned as Hogan’s chief of staff in August after just 11 weeks on the job, four days after The Baltimore Sun first published an article about the payout. The newspaper also has reported on annual bonuses McGrath and other MES executives received, and more than $55,000 worth of expense reimbursements he received after leaving the environmental service.

McGrath has defended the payout as a “severance” package that was well deserved.

He is scheduled to testify next week before the General Assembly’s Joint Committee on Fair Practices and State Personnel Oversight.

Lawmakers on the committee issued subpoenas to compel McGrath and Sherring to testify after they turned down invitations to appear.

Sherring’s testimony — or lack thereof — left committee leaders disappointed.

“Today we had a high-level, politically connected former state employee that won’t answer questions, won’t answer very basic questions, in the face of a lot of evidence,” said Del. Erek Barron, a Prince George’s County Democrat who co-chairs the committee.

Coe, the lawmakers’ attorney, methodically asked the former MES director of operations questions about his work at the agency, his trips, his expenses and his involvement with the service’s response to The Sun’s reporting. For nearly every question, Coe showed related documents such as expense reports, emails and text messages.

For example, Coe showed emails in June that indicate Sherring and McGrath tried to change the Maryland Environmental Service Board of Directors’ meeting minutes from the prior month, when the board approved McGrath’s payout.

Other emails showed Sherring recommended that the environmental service not respond to The Sun’s inquiries about McGrath’s payout in August. After the story was published, emails showed Sherring was involved in the service’s attempts to defend the payout.

Sherring also did not answer questions about why he attended numerous conferences that don’t appear to have resulted in any new contracts for the Maryland Environmental Service. The environmental service is an independent state agency that preforms environmental and public works projects, mainly for local governments and state agencies.

Documents show that Sherring and McGrath traveled together frequently, including international trips to Belgium, France, Israel and Italy, and trips to Chicago, Las Vegas, New York City, Phoenix and other locations.

Sherring charged the environmental service for hotel rooms in Annapolis, College Park and Columbia, even though he lives in Washington, D.C., and the service’s headquarters building is in Millersville in Anne Arundel County.

Sherring would not say whether McGrath helped him get the MES job, or his prior job with the state Department of Housing and Community Development — though the two men previously worked together at a trade group for drugstores, as did several other MES employees.

Asked if he knew Hogan or made contributions to Hogan’s campaigns, Sherring again invoked his Fifth Amendment rights. Public records show that since 2014, Sherring has donated $3,550 to Hogan’s campaigns and $1,000 to the 2019 inaugural committee.

Sen. Clarence Lam, a committee co-chair, called the lack of answers from Sherring “deeply troubling.”

“It leads us to assume there was something untoward or inappropriate about these expenses,” said Lam, a Democrat who represents parts of Howard and Baltimore counties.

Lam said it may end up that a court decides whether the expenses were legally appropriate, but “in the court of public opinion, you and Mr. McGrath represent everything that’s wrong with state government. It’s really a breach of trust.”

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