Environment Agency Workers Tense, Morale Low Under Ex-Hogan Aide, Deputy Says | WYPR

Environment Agency Workers Tense, Morale Low Under Ex-Hogan Aide, Deputy Says

Sep 2, 2020

Members of the General Assembly's Joint Committee on Fair Practices and State Personnel Oversight question Beth Wojton, former deputy director of the Maryland Environmental Service.
Credit YouTube

State legislators on Wednesday received a bleak picture of life at the Maryland Environmental Service under the leadership of former director Roy McGrath. During his time at the helm, McGrath was “guarded and secretive,” and morale was low, former MES deputy director Beth Wojton told members of the legislature’s Joint Committee on Fair Practices and State Personnel Oversight.

 

MES is often referred to as a quasi-public agency. Though it functions in many respects like a business, it is an arm of state government whose workers are state government employees. Nearly all of its revenue comes from local, state and federal government for services such as designing and running landfills, wastewater treatment plants and dredging operations. 

 

McGrath seemed better suited to the private sector than running a government agency, Wojton told lawmakers. 

 

The sole witness at Wednesday’s hearing, Wojton said she worked at MES for 32 years and served under five different directors and two acting directors. She was asked to leave by acting director Charles Glass when he assumed his role in June. 

 

Wojton said McGrath was distant with agency staff. He frequently worked remotely, and senior staff members were routinely unaware of his whereabouts. He was particularly concerned with the agency’s image. For example, he established a rule that agency vehicles could not be parked at the agency’s headquarters unless they were washed first — a significant burden for workers who do what Wojton called “really, really dirty jobs.”

 

“He instituted policies and procedures that were difficult to defend or explain to employees,” Wojton said. 

 

He reduced the number of vehicles in MES’s fleet, forcing employees to rely on their personal vehicles for their work, she said. He banned food from their office conference room except during board meetings, effectively prohibiting employees from celebrating birthdays or baby showers there. 

 

According to Wojton, McGrath would not accept negative feedback, and he could be “vindictive” if things didn’t go his way.

“People were tense, always tense around Mr. McGrath,” Wojton said. “He could be very charming and very nice, but it felt like he didn't respect our employees, and that was hard to take.”

 

McGrath left MES in June after Gov. Larry Hogan appointed him his chief of staff. Then McGrath left his new post last month after The Baltimore Sun reported that he had received a $233,647 severance payment upon leaving MES for the Governor’s Office. 

 

He also received reimbursement for more than $55,000 in expenses that he submitted when he left. Though MES policies require staff to submit expenses for reimbursement within five days of when the expenses occur, McGrath incurred some of his submitted expenses as far back as early 2019.

 

On Wednesday, lawmakers honed in on a few of these expenses, including $14,475 in tuition reimbursement for a program at the Harvard Kennedy School that McGrath planned to participate in after he left MES. The amount exceeded the allowed limit for MES’s tuition reimbursement policy, as Del. Marc Korman, a Montgomery County Democrat, noted and Wojton confirmed.

 

Lawmakers also flagged a night in a New York hotel that cost more than $900 and a meal at the Old Ebbitt Grill in Washington with MES’s now-former director of operations Matthew Sherring. 

 

The severance package and other payments and the policies that allowed them are at the core of the lawmakers’ inquiry.

 

“I think it raises a lot of questions about what the governor knew about this severance payment beforehand,” Sen. Clarence Lam, a Democrat who represents parts of Baltimore and Howard counties and one of the committee’s two co-chairs, said during Wednesday’s hearing.

 

At a hearing before the same legislative committee last week, MES board member Joseph Snee told lawmakers that the board would not approve the severance payment without the approval of the governor or someone in the Governor’s Office. 

 

“Mr. McGrath assured me that the governor was aware of the proposed severance payment and did not object,” Snee said. 

Wojton said Wednesday that she had received the same assurance.

 

However, neither Wojton nor the MES board members checked with the governor. They took McGrath at his word.

 

Hogan has said he had no knowledge of the payment.

 

“When I first offered him the job of chief of staff, he said, I’m really honored, and I’d like to consider it, but it’s — if I’m going to return to state service, it’s going to be a big cut in pay, and I’ve got to go figure out from my current job — he said something to the effect of we get bonuses every year, and it’s based on profits and production, and I gotta go figure out my finances,” Hogan recalled at a press conference last week. “I knew nothing about the details of what his discussions were with his current employer or the board members at MES, didn’t discuss it or approve it or know anything about the amounts of it or anything.”

 

In text messages between McGrath and Hogan that were provided to lawmakers before Wednesday’s hearing, McGrath appears to plead with Hogan to reverse his position.

 

“Can you please say something about us discussing severance? That it was ok for me to handle with MES. Only what we agreed. Without your support, it looks like I mislead MES. I did not,” McGrath wrote on Aug. 26, the day after the legislative committee’s first hearing on the matter. “I’ve been one of your loyalist supporters from the beginning. Never asked for anything, but need your help now, please. This is devastating my life.”

 

 

Hogan did not respond, according to a letter to the legislators from Michael Pedone, chief legal counsel for the Governor’s Office.

 

McGrath did not respond to calls seeking comment on Wednesday. 

 

In an op-ed published in The Baltimore Sun shortly after he resigned from the Governor’s Office, McGrath said his severance payment “was a standard business practice for certain executives who had earned it, typically through performance. Had this not been the practice, I would neither have expected nor accepted the payment.”

 

In addition to his disavowals, Hogan has called for the Department of Budget and Management to audit MES. He has also said his office plans to work with the legislature to reform the agency’s governance and operations. 

In an interview on Tuesday, House Speaker Adrienne Jones said she wants to let the Joint Committee’s process unfold, but she hopes to see “systemic changes” at MES. And, she said, when the full legislature convenes in January, other quasi-public state entities could also be in the spotlight.

 

Del. Erek Barron, a Prince George’s County Democrat and co-chair of the Joint Committee, echoed that sentiment at the end of Wednesday’s hearing.

 

“The committee is going to continue to deliberate and determine what our next steps are, so that we can continue to kind of drill down on these issues and make sure these kinds of issues don't continue at MES or the rest of the executive branch,” Barron said.