During his tenure as director of operations for the Maryland Environmental Service, Matthew Sherring did not attend closed sessions of the organization’s governing board.
But that did not stop him from attempting to rewrite the official minutes of a private meeting the MES board held last year, according to an investigator hired by the General Assembly.
Attorney Ward B. Coe told lawmakers on Thursday the changes Sherring attempted to force upon MES staff were intended to keep from view the conversations that preceded a controversial payout to Roy McGrath, Gov. Lawrence J. Hogan Jr.’s former chief of staff.
McGrath stepped down as director of MES last summer to join the administration, and the nearly $300,000 in “severance” and expense reimbursements he received when he left the quasi-governmental organization created bad optics for Hogan (R), who is said to be considering a run for president in 2024.
Although he defended the payout at first, McGrath stepped down just days after it became public.
The General Assembly began an investigation soon thereafter, hiring Coe, a highly-regarded Baltimore attorney, to gather documents and conduct interviews.
The probe, handled by the legislature’s Joint Committee on Fair Practices and Personnel Oversight, has generated interest in Annapolis because of McGrath’s repeated assertion that Hogan knew about the severance, something the governor has denied.
Lawmakers appeared shaken by a batch of Sherring emails and text messages that Coe disclosed for the first time.
Coe said the communications were designed to shield from public view the assurances that McGrath, a close Sherring associate, provided to the MES board as he sought a year’s salary — $233,647 — in severance, along with nearly $56,000 in expenses.
In the emails, Sherring — who left the service around the same time McGrath did — hounded staff for access to minutes of the May 2020, MES board meeting before they could be voted upon.
He eventually gained access from staffer Pamela Fuller, who told a coworker in an email: “[h]e kept bugging me, so I sent him a copy to play with.”
After gaining access to the document, Sherring deleted a passage relating to Hogan.
Coe displayed for lawmakers “before” and “after” versions of the draft minutes to highlight the passages Sherring wanted removed.
“[Board member Joseph F. Snee Jr.] stated that he had told Mr. McGrath that he would not recommend the severance payment be made unless the Governor was aware of the proposed severance and did not object,” the original version read.
“McGrath had assured Mr. Snee that the Governor was aware of the proposed severance payment and did not object,” it continued.
Coe told lawmakers that if “the Sherring version” of the meeting had been approved, “there would have been no reference in the minutes available to the public that the MES board had awarded a severance equal to a year’s salary, reimbursement for tuition and the other elements.”
The board’s attorney, Assistant Attorney General Sean Coleman, and the agency’s new executive director, Charles M. Glass, rejected the changes Sherring sought, and the deleted passage was reinserted.
According to Coe, it was not unusual for Sherring to attempt to rewrite minutes of meetings he did not attend.
He also suggested that Sherring and McGrath acted in concert.
“We’re preparing for BOD [board of directors] mtg, 6/25,” Sherring told McGrath in a text the committee obtained. “Would you like to review the BOD mtg minutes from May?”
“Yes… offline,” McGrath replied.
A spokesman for Hogan declined to comment. Sherring’s attorney, David B. Irwin, did not respond to an email on Thursday.
In a sharply worded statement, McGrath’s attorney, Bruce L. Marcus, accused lawmakers of attempting to “malign and disparage” his client.
“Regrettably, instead of being a search for facts, the session devolved into a series of unsubstantiated and baseless personal attacks on the former chief executive officer,” he wrote. “Properly managed, the Committee has the ability to serve the public in improving oversight of State related functions. Use of public hearings to malign and disparage former officials, in this case Roy McGrath, in an effort to engage in self-promotion is inconsistent with the statutory purposes for which the Committee was authorized.”
“Mischaracterizations of actual testimony and events does not advance legitimate purposes for this Committee or any other public body,” Marcus added.
Coe said that McGrath and Sherring have refused to answer questions about the attempts to change MES board meeting minutes. “The committee can draw its own conclusions about that,” he said.
Late and questionable expense reports
The committee also took testimony from former MES director of finance and treasurer Michael C. Harris.
He testified that McGrath routinely flouted MES policy regarding expense limits and the timely filing of expense reports.
He said McGrath regularly would turn in months’ worth of expenses at a time, and Coe displayed records which indicated that Harris routinely approved tens of thousands of dollars in travel, meals and executive seminars within minutes of receiving them.
He also described how Sherring submitted an expense report for a Harvard training course attended by McGrath, a report that went to McGrath for approval.
Harris said he didn’t feel he had the “authority” to question McGrath’s spending, even when his meals and accommodations exceeded MES limits or lacked explanation.
“I was in no position not to approve the expenses,” he said.
When the Office of Legislative Audit received a complaint about excessive MES travel on its whistleblower hotline, Harris said he assumed the complaint was about McGrath.
McGrath assigned the matter to Harris, the former treasurer testified, but MES never made the complaint a priority.
“He didn’t tell me to do anything about it,” Harris said.
The Senate chairman of the Joint Committee on Fair Practices and Personnel Oversight, Clarence K. Lam (D-Howard), said MES under McGrath had “an alarming lack of checks and balances,” noting that the former director opted not to replace an internal auditor after she departed.
He also accused McGrath of treating the organization “almost as a personal ATM, to the point where he was emptying the bank account on his way out the door.”
“It is deeply troubling and shameful to use MES in this way … while other agencies and state personnel are being asked to tighten their belts and reduce expenses,” he added.
The panel is expected to meet one more time, in July, at which point Coe is expected to release a final report on his probe.
Most of the revenues the MES generates doing public works projects around the state comes from local tax dollars.