Gov. Wes Moore (D) has offered a second chance to Ellicott City businesswoman Yolanda Maria Martinez, his controversial pick for a seat on the Maryland Stadium Authority board whose nomination ran aground during the General Assembly session earlier this year.
Moore announced Thursday that he has appointed Martinez special secretary of the Governor’s Office of Small, Minority, and Women Business Affairs. Her appointment, which does not require state Senate confirmation, takes effect July 5. She will be paid $150,000 a year, according to Moore’s spokesperson, Carter Elliott IV.
“As one of our state’s most respected business, community, and philanthropic leaders, Maria brings vision, heart, and experience to this critical role,” Moore said in a statement.
Moore had originally nominated Martinez for a seat on the stadium authority board, but she never received a vote in the Senate Executive Nominations Committee, after Maryland Matters reported about her checkered financial history extending back more than three decades. Her troubles included a $7.2 million personal bankruptcy and scores of lawsuits filed against her for unpaid debts. These resulted in millions of dollars in judgments entered against her in court — some paid, others not — and she has had her wages garnished, automobiles repossessed and properties she owned foreclosed upon, according to public records.
One allegation, which resulted in criminal charges being filed against her, is that Martinez, her husband and movers wearing ski masks cleaned out a Lutherville boutique and consignment shop that she co-owned and then changed the locks after the store closed one Sunday night. The criminal charges were dropped, and Martinez eventually settled with the partner, who bought out her financial interest in the shop for $35,000 during her bankruptcy, records show.
During her confirmation hearing before the Executive Nominations panel on March 13, Martinez acknowledged her financial difficulties but attributed them to the 1994 bankruptcy of a company owned by her abusive former husband — and said she had to deal with the aftermath for years.
She explained how she overcame being a victim of domestic abuse and rose up to start another business, Respira Inc., a successful medical equipment company that later encountered troubles when a change in government reimbursement rates forced her to shut the business down in 2018.
“I just needed to clarify all that because it’s very painful for me,” Martinez told the committee.
The Senate committee chose not to act on Martinez’s nomination, even though Moore regularly defended her and Latino lawmakers and others pressured senators to confirm her, efforts that included a rally in front of the State House. David Turner, a spokesperson for Moore, said at the time that the administration was aware of Martinez’s financial troubles and saw her struggles as “a human story about someone who’s had enormous challenges in her life … [and] who overcame those challenges to become successful.”
Martinez has been prominent in Maryland Latino and Democratic circles for years. Under previous governors, she has served as chair of Governor’s Commission on Hispanic Affairs, on the board of trustees of the Maryland Automobile Insurance Fund, the state’s insurer of last resort, and the Department of Health and Mental Hygiene’s Board of Review.
According to the Moore administration, Martinez is currently the chief strategy officer at Project Enhancement Corporation, a federal contracting firm owned by her husband that does environmental, health, safety, and national security work for the government.
The administration also said she is the current board chair of the Ellicott City Partnership and formerly served as chair of the Baltimore Hispanic Chamber of Commerce, the Maryland Hispanic Chamber of Commerce, and the Governor’s Commission on Hispanic Affairs. She also served as co-chair on the Advisory Council on Minority and Women Owned Business Enterprises for the City of Baltimore, as a member of the advisory board to the Baltimore chapter of the NAACP, and as a member of President Obama’s Economic Recovery Advisory Board Workforce Development Task Force.
As special secretary of the Governor’s Office of Small, Minority, and Women Business Affairs, Martinez will held the state office designed to connect small business owners to economic opportunities in both the public and private sectors. She will also administer the state’s Minority Business Enterprise, Veteran Small Business Enterprise, and Small Business Reserve programs.
“Maria shares our administration’s unwavering commitment to ensuring that we have a fair, inclusive, and accountable procurement process for our small, minority, women, and veteran-owned businesses,” Moore said.
The special secretary position has been vacant since Moore took office in mid-January. It was previously held by Jimmy H. Rhee, a Korean-born businessman who served for the entirety of the Hogan administration. Rhee was hired in 2015 at a starting salary of $131,571 and ended at $165,671, Elliott said. During Rhee’s tenure, the agency, which was created in 1986, changed its name from the Governor’s Office of Minority Affairs to its current designation.
“As an entrepreneur and minority small businesswoman, I have a perspective shared by thousands in our state who have found it challenging to enter and thrive in Maryland’s business environment,” Martinez said in a statement. “Among these challenges are complex policies and contractual structures and procurement practices and lack of clear and transparent lines of communication between small businesses and our state. I believe that if we address the requirements, the enforcement, and the communication of this cyclical business structure, we can create a continually improving business environment within the State of Maryland.”
Bryan P. Sears contributed to this report. This story has been updated with salary information for Maria Martinez and Jimmy Rhee.