Two Democratic senators said this week that they plan to grill Republican Gov. Lawrence J. Hogan Jr.’s choice to lead the Department of Natural Resources about the future of the agency and possible political interference on key matters of science at her forthcoming confirmation hearing.
The controversial firing of the longtime manager of Maryland’s blue crab fishery in 2017 is almost certain to be one of the topics.
Jeannie Haddaway-Riccio, a top Hogan aide who is currently acting DNR secretary and is in line for the permanent job, is scheduled to appear before the Senate Executive Nominations Committee on Monday.
Haddaway-Riccio, a former Republican state lawmaker from the Eastern Shore who served as deputy chief of staff during Hogan’s first term, is a popular figure in Annapolis whose nomination to be DNR secretary was hailed by watermen and some environmental groups. It was initially assumed that her confirmation would be a sure thing.
But in interviews Wednesday, Senate Executive Nominations Chair Ronald N. Young (D-Frederick) and Senate Education, Health and Environmental Affairs Chair Paul G. Pinsky (D-Prince George’s) said they wanted to explore Haddaway-Riccio’s role in the firing of Brenda Davis, DNR’s crab program manager who had spent 28 years with the agency. They also expressed fear that important policy decisions are increasingly being made by political operatives within the agency.
“There are going to be some questions about her vision for the future of DNR,” said Young, who served as deputy DNR secretary under former Gov. Parris N. Glendening (D) and will preside over Haddaway-Riccio’s confirmation hearing. “I think some people are concerned that some of the long-term professional people [at the agency] are going to be let go and replaced by political appointees.”
Sources in state government and the environmental community said they expect the agency to be reorganized in the near future.
Some environmental groups and their allies in the General Assembly have eyed DNR warily since Davis’ firing two years ago. That came without warning and just a week after Hogan met with Eastern Shore watermen who had been pushing DNR to change a long-standing regulation setting the minimum catchable size for crabs. Scientists maintained that the regulation was necessary to sustain the Chesapeake Bay’s blue crab population.
While the decision to let Davis go was officially made by Mark J. Belton, the former DNR secretary whom Haddaway-Riccio has been tapped to replace, critics of the move contend that the directive to fire Davis was made by the governor’s office. Haddaway-Riccio’s portfolio at the time included oversight of DNR.
“She oversaw DNR for the governor,” said Pinsky, the leading critic of Davis’ firing in the legislature at the time. “She was involved with the conversations with the watermen. I think the former secretary was a good guy, but I think he fell on his sword a few times.”
Pinsky said he’s worried about the direction of DNR under the Hogan administration and wants to press Haddaway-Riccio on her priorities.
“The concern I have is whether she’s going to be representing the priorities of one of the constituency groups – the watermen – or whether she’s going to follow science,” Pinsky said.
Sources said Democrats may also question Haddaway-Riccio about the activities of certain political appointees at DNR – particularly George O’Donnell, a former Queen Anne’s County commissioner and ex-Orphan’s Court judge whose official title at DNR is customer relations manager at the Fishing and Boating Service. He is the liaison at the agency for watermen, and frequently amplifies their concerns.
In a statement provided to Maryland Matters Wednesday night, the Hogan administration defended Haddaway-Riccio’s nomination.
“Jeannie Haddaway-Riccio is a distinguished public servant who has spent her career advocating for the issues and policies that are critical to the future of the Maryland Department of Natural Resources and our state,” said Amelia Chassé, the governor’s communications director. “There has rarely been a more qualified individual to serve in this capacity, and we are confident that she will demonstrate her passion and expertise during the confirmation process and throughout her service as secretary.”
When Hogan nominated Haddaway-Riccio in January, he said she “has a proven track record of working to protect Maryland’s environment.”
Haddaway-Riccio had generally friendly relations with environmental and conservation groups when she served in the House of Delegates from 2003 to 2015. She came to the Hogan administration after running for lieutenant governor in 2014 on a ticket headed by one of Hogan’s rivals, then-Harford County Executive David Craig (R).
Haddaway-Riccio previously worked for the Maryland Department of Environment’s Air and Radiation Management Administration, as well as the National Audubon Society.
After Hogan nominated Haddaway-Riccio to be DNR secretary in January, the Chesapeake Bay Foundation released a supportive statement.
“This is a critical time for Chesapeake Bay restoration and the management of Maryland’s natural resources,” CBF Maryland Executive Director Alison Prost said in the statement. “We look forward to working with Jeannie Haddaway-Riccio to ensure that sound science is used in the restoration and management of those resources.”