Gov. Lawrence J. Hogan Jr. rejected a claim from his former chief of staff Roy McGrath on Friday, insisting that he did not sign-off on a controversial severance payment that his longtime associate received last year.
McGrath obtained the $233,647.23 severance when he stepped down as head of the quasi-governmental Maryland Environmental Service to become Hogan’s top aide. He also got reimbursed $55,000 for expenses involving conferences at posh hotels, high-priced meals, a Harvard training course and a boardwalk ice cream.
McGrath stepped down after just 11 weeks due to the public uproar surrounding the payments.
The severance triggered legislative hearings and the hiring of the first special counsel in nearly two decades.
During those hearings, MES board members said they were leery of approving the payoff because McGrath was voluntarily leaving the non-profit public works agency to accept another lucrative job in state government — but they did so after he provided assurances that the governor was on board with it. Board members said they didn’t want to alienate the governor or his new staff chief.
Hogan (R) has repeatedly denied knowing anything about the severance package.
The memo, dated May 18, 2020, was addressed “To: Governor Hogan” and included the line: “RE: EMPLOYMENT AGREEMENT – ROY MCGRATH.”
The memo did not say who authored it, nor was the document on letterhead.
The box next to the word “Approved” has a check mark — and McGrath told the newspapers that the box was checked by the governor.
McGrath also showed reporters text messages from “L H” expressing solidarity with his plight after the payments were made public in The Sun. Hogan and McGrath first met 30 years ago when McGrath, a local party activist, donated to and volunteered on Hogan’s failed congressional bid against now-Rep. Steny H. Hoyer (D).
“I know you did nothing wrong. I know it is unfair,” the text message to McGrath states, an apparent reference to media scrutiny and subsequent legislative criticism of the hefty payout.
“I will stand with you,” LH wrote. “But we need our team to have all the facts so they can all help us circle the wagons and fight back.”
Hogan spokesman Michael Ricci told the Post and Sun that the memo McGrath showed reporters was “a complete fabrication” and that the governor had never seen the memo until state prosecutors showed it to him.
Ricci confirmed the authenticity of the text messages.
At a press conference on Friday, Hogan denied checking-off on the document.
“This is just a sad situation,” he said. “This is the end of a year-long federal and state investigation that resulted in this individual being charged … at the federal and state level. This was all part of that investigation. It’s an on-going court case. I’ve been very clear about this numerous times from the beginning and not at all was aware of these things — and when we found out, he was terminated within a matter of days.”
Asked if he supplied the blue check-mark, Hogan said “no.”
McGrath, who now resides in Florida, told reporters this week that he decided to give on-the-record interviews and provide the text messages and disputed memo to clear his name.
The federal grand jury indictment includes four counts of wire fraud and two counts of improperly converting government funds for his personal benefit.
McGrath is facing 27 charges in the state case, including nine counts of illegal wiretapping, 14 counts of misconduct in office, three counts of theft between $1,500 and $25,000, and one count of embezzlement for misappropriating state funds. He is due to take part in a status conference in Anne Arundel County next month.
Even if Hogan wasn’t aware of the payout that McGrath received when he stepped down as the self-styled “CEO” of the Maryland Environmental Service, the episode carries political risks for him.
As he nears the end of his tenure as governor, Hogan is positioning himself for a possible White House bid, stressing issues like police funding and redistricting reform, and heaping scorn on the Biden administration.
Barring a plea deal by McGrath (which seems unlikely given his newly-aggressive media strategy), his trials will undoubtedly stretch well into 2022, potentially keeping alive long-unanswered questions.