Months after Gov. Lawrence J. Hogan Jr.’s chief of staff stepped down amid a swirl of questions about a severance package he received from a prior state job, members of the legislature are about to get their chance to probe the controversial payout.
Roy McGrath will testify before the Joint Committee on Fair Practices and State Personnel Oversight on Dec. 16. A former aide, Matthew Sherring, goes before the panel this Thursday.
McGrath lasted just 11 weeks as Hogan’s top aide. He left his post in August after members of the Maryland Environmental Service board told lawmakers they felt pressured to grant McGrath’s request for a year’s salary as severance.
McGrath served as CEO of the quasi-governmental organization for three years. He left in May after receiving the offer to work for Hogan (R).
Although he was leaving one lucrative position for another, he told MES board members that the governor “anticipated” a $234,000 severance, board members told the legislative panel in August. He also received $55,000 in expense reimbursement.
Board members told the legislature they felt queasy about such a large payout but didn’t want to anger the governor or his powerful top aide.
The severance wasn’t the only MES practice to draw scrutiny.
McGrath’s top deputy at the agency, Beth Wojton, told the personnel panel in September that she and other employees were routinely prevented from seeing expenses related to the Environmental Business Leadership Conference, a series of MES events held each year.
Instead, those expenses were routed to Sherring, the service’s director of operations, who had worked with McGrath in other posts.
Wojton retired in June after the board decided not to select her to run the service. She also said McGrath continued to press MES to approve his severance after he began his new job.
The Maryland Environmental Service was formed in 1970 to undertake public works and environmental projects. Nearly all of the organization’s revenue comes from county and local governments.
As chief of staff, McGrath was to take home $233,647 per year.
Hogan has denied approving or knowing about the payout.
Sherring left the service a week after McGrath stepped down as Hogan’s chief of staff. No reason for his departure was given, and he has not spoken publicly.
McGrath has denied wrongdoing, telling The Baltimore Sun that a large severance was customary practice at the MES. He penned a Sun op-ed pushing back at critics of the payout.
Both McGrath and Sherring have retained counsel. David B. Irwin, Sherring’s lawyer, declined comment on Tuesday, as did Bruce L. Marcus, McGrath’s attorney.
Maryland Matters reported in October that state prosecutors and federal investigators are probing the severance payout that McGrath received. The Maryland Environmental Service has performed work at Camp David, the presidential retreat in Western Maryland, according to a source.
In light of the investigations, it’s unclear how many details the two men will be willing to reveal on the controversial payout.
The Joint Committee on Fair Practices and State Personnel Oversight has retained outside counsel, veteran Baltimore attorney Ward B. Coe, and he will do the bulk of the questioning of McGrath and Sherring.
The panel, which is made up of Democrats and Republicans, voted 24-0 in September to compel testimony and documents from the two. It’s the first time in nearly 20 years the legislature has done so.
While some of the governor’s backers may view the upcoming hearings as political opportunism, lawmakers believe they have an obligation to conduct oversight of how MES funds were used — particularly given the conflict between Hogan’s statements and McGrath’s.
Del. Erek L. Barron (D-Prince George’s), the panel’s co-chairman, insists there is a legitimate oversight role for the General Assembly.
“There are open questions that the public and its representatives have a right to know,” Barron said. “We have a responsibility, headed into [next year’s General Assembly] session to do what we can, legislatively, to fix the issue.”
Barron called Coe “an old hand, wise and experienced, [who] knows all the players, knows the other lawyers very well. [He’s] a cool customer.”