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Hogan nominee to Maryland PSC denies improper communications

Gov. Larry Hogan's embattled nominee to the commission that regulates Maryland utilities told senators Monday night that he had done nothing wrong in discussing agency business with administration officials but pledged he would show greater independence in the future.

Michael T. Richard underwent stiff questioning as he appeared before the Senate Executive Nominations Committee with his job as a member of the Public Service Commission hanging in the balance.

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The panel held a hearing earlier in the session on Hogan's appointment of Richard, a former deputy chief of staff to the Republican governor. The senators summoned him to return Monday to answer questions about emails he exchanged with Hogan aides about matters before the independent commission since his nomination in January.

Richard said the emails were part of his transition from being the governor's liaison to the PSC to being a member of the commission.

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"I have finished handing off my portfolio," Richard said. "I am sorry I created a doubt about my independence."

If Richard's appointment is approved, he would keep his job on the five-member commission for a five-year term. In 2014, the most recent year for which information was available, commissioners were paid $136,600 a year.

The committee adjourned without taking a vote on his nomination, but said it will decide next Monday — one week before the General Assembly ends its 2016 session.

After the meeting, Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller said he would vote for the nominee because he believes in "redemption."

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"These were huge mistakes and I think he acknowledged they were mistakes, and I'm confident they won't happen again," said Miller, a Calvert County Democrat.

Others on the committee were not as forgiving.

Sen. Jamie Raskin, the Montgomery County Democrat who chairs the committee, zeroed in on a message from Richard that alerted the administration to the plans of the commission, a powerful agency that regulates utility rates and plays an influential role in energy policy.

"It looked like this was a kind of back channel alert going to the governor to coordinate strategy," Raskin said.

Sen. Jim Brochin, a Baltimore County Democrat, told Richard that one of his emails to the Hogan staff looked to him like the commissioner was "tipping off" his former employer.

"Can't you see there's a reasonable question of which team you're on?" Brochin asked Richard.

Richard said he wasn't tipping off anyone on the governor's staff and had cleared his communications about agency business through the PSC's lawyer.

Republicans on the committee defended Richard, echoing the contention of Matthew A. Clark, a spokesman for the governor, that the Senate had approved similar conduct by PSC nominees under former Gov. Matin O'Malley, a Democrat.

"We're beating a dead horse here," said Sen. George Edwards, a Garrett County Republican.

The doubts about Richard's nomination stem from a public records request by the consumer advocacy group Public Citizen that uncovered a steady stream of emails between Richard and Hogan administration officials after he took his seat on the commission in January.

In Maryland, PSC nominees serve on the commission in a tentative role until confirmed by the Senate.

Public Citizen and another advocacy group called on the Senate to reject Richard's nomination, saying his emails to administration officials amounted to "ex parte" communications — a legal term for exchanges with a judge or decision-maker without the other parties' knowledge.

Richard denied that his emails amounted to ex parte communications.

"I hope I can assure you I know very well what it means to be a Public Service commissioner," he said.

The PSC regulates utilities, setting rates and ensuring safe and reliable service for gas and electricity. It also regulates taxicab operators, telecommunications and railroad companies.

If Richard is rejected, he would become the fourth Hogan nominee to be rejected by the committee this year. The panel voted down three Hogan nominees to the Baltimore liquor board this month. The committee also decided Monday night to hold up the nominations of four members of the state Board of Education for a week, part of an unrelated policy dispute.

Miller said that while he would vote to confirm Richard, he did not know whether there were enough votes on the panel to approve his nomination. He said he would not lobby senators to vote his way.

"That's the governor's job, not mine," Miller said.

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