Josh Kurtz: Where the Buck Stops

Roy McGrath, then Governor Lawrence J. Hogan Jr.'s chief of staff, at a conference call of the governor’s Cabinet in the Maryland State House in June 2020. Photo by the Executive Office of the Governor/Flickr.

About an hour after news circulated Tuesday that his former chief of staff, Roy McGrath, had been charged by federal and state prosecutors for plundering the state treasury, among other alleged misdeeds, Gov. Lawrence J. Hogan Jr.’s political committee, An America United, sent out a fundraising solicitation.

The subject line of the email was, “He created this mess,” and the pitch began this way:

“My friend, I’m frustrated. Are you?

“Joe Biden promised to restore bipartisan cooperation in Congress. He did not.

“He said he would bring competency back to the governing process. He did not.

“As president, he promised to Build Back Better. We’re crumbling.

“Why has President Biden abandoned his pledge and duty to the American people? We are demanding answers.”

Electronic fundraising solicitations like these are often programmed to run well in advance, so the timing may have been coincidental. At a minimum, the solicitation made for an interesting juxtaposition.

Let’s talk about bringing competency back to the governing process.

There’s no evidence that other shoes are going to drop — that the scandal that has engulfed McGrath is going to singe other current or former high-ranking members of the Hogan administration or the governor himself. But Hogan (R), the man who promised to clean up state government after what he characterized as years of ruinous Democrat rule, must ultimately bear responsibility for putting this miscreant in powerful and high-paying positions.

If, at the start of the Hogan administration in 2015, you had laid money on which of the new governor’s close advisers was going to wind up running afoul on the law, you probably wouldn’t have thought of McGrath. He was buttoned-down, cautious, and meticulous.

But if prosecutors’ assertions are true, it seems as if McGrath was leading a secret life of luxury, with state taxpayers — and particularly the quasi-governmental Maryland Environmental Service, which he headed — his own personal piggy bank. Shame on him, if even a fraction of the allegations contained in the 33 federal and state charges are true.

And what of the governor who put him there? Hogan, who fancies himself the avatar of bipartisanship, has only been too happy to rip Maryland Democrats when one of their own becomes ensnared in scandal, and has used Democratic scandals in Maryland for other fundraising appeals over the years. He even fashioned a government reform legislative agenda around them ahead of one legislative session — though he didn’t work especially hard to pass it.

What did he say when Roy McGrath resigned from state service, already under a cloud, over a year ago? “Roy has been a deeply valued member of our administration, and our state is better for his dedicated service.” He also called McGrath “someone of the highest character.”

Hogan loves the trappings of power and managing crises. Put a state police fleece jacket on him and let him tour ravaged West Baltimore in the company of the National Guard, he’s in charge. Surround the State House with military vehicles during the early stages of COVID-19 while he imposes a state of emergency, he’s in his element. Get him on CNN, he’s part of the national conversation. Lately, he’s been advancing the idea that he is somehow responsible for the bipartisan infrastructure deal now before Congress.

The day-to-day minutiae of state government? Well, that doesn’t create a soundbite or a good optic or a national media hit. It’s in this environment that something like the McGrath scandal is allowed to flourish.

But Hogan doesn’t bear all the responsibility for the situation that enabled McGrath. There was plenty of inadvertent enabling beyond the second floor of the State House.

Shortly after the charges against McGrath were announced, Senate President Bill Ferguson (D-Baltimore City) released a statement lauding new legislation, passed this year in the wake of the McGrath scandal and subsequent legislative hearings, that “implemented strict compensation protocols and accountability measures to reform the Maryland Environmental Service.

“I hope that this legislation, coupled with the judicial process, ensures a similar situation can never happen again in Maryland,” Ferguson added.

But with a few exceptions, until McGrath’s hefty severance from MES was first reported last year by The Baltimore Sun, Democrats in the General Assembly largely allowed Hogan personnel and operational practices to go unscrutinized, choosing instead to fight him on  ideological grounds or attempt to tether him to President Trump. A better approach may have been to wonder, who’s minding the store?

It’s also hard not to ponder whether McGrath would have been so brazen if there was a more robust press corps covering state government. Hogan and his allies may grumble about the biased liberal media, but his administration has largely gone unchallenged and unscathed, and Hogan, with his deft use of social media, his wooing of national political reporters and his reliance on friendly broadcast outlets in Maryland, has largely been able to shape his own narrative.

Maryland Democrats have had a string of scandals at the local and legislative levels in recent years, and they deserve to be called on them. Most gubernatorial administrations are never completely free from scandal, though things have improved since the days of Spiro Agnew and Marvin Mandel.

Even as Hogan continues to regularly malign former Gov. Martin J. O’Malley (D), it’s worth noting that no one in O’Malley’s inner circle has ever been indicted.

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Josh Kurtz
Founding Editor Josh Kurtz is a veteran chronicler of Maryland politics and government. He began covering the State House in 1995 for The Gazette newspapers, and has been writing about state and local politics ever since. He was an editor at Roll Call, the Capitol Hill newspaper, for eight years, and for eight years was the editor of E&E Daily, which covers energy and environmental policy on Capitol Hill. For 6 1/2 years Kurtz wrote a weekly column on state politics for Center Maryland and has written for several other Maryland publications as well. Kurtz regularly gives speeches and appears on TV and radio shows to discuss Maryland politics.