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Maryland PSC appointee draws attention for Twitter posts

ANNAPOLIS — A newly nominated member of the Public Service Commission is drawing attention for a number of posts to a social media account he once operated.

Michael L. Higgs Jr. was appointed in February by Gov. Larry Hogan to fill a vacancy on the commission that oversees utilities in the state, but a number of partisan, politically charges posts on his now-deleted Twitter account have drawn the attention of members of the Senate Executive Nominations Committee.

“Obviously, with any nominee when there is a social media trail that leads to some dubious places, the senators are going to want to know what was said, what the context was, was there a pattern and what are the implications for it,” said Sen. Jamin B. “Jamie” Raskin, D-Montgomery County and chairman of the Senate Executive Nominations Committee.  “It’s not a straightforward question. You can’t say they are automatically disqualifying or totally irrelevant. They’re going to be somewhere on the spectrum.”

Jamie Raskin, Maryland State senator for the 20th District  (Maximilian Franz / The Daily Record)

Jamie Raskin, Maryland State senator for the 20th District (Maximilian Franz / The Daily Record)

Raskin said he became aware of the messages when “someone handed me a big stack.”

Many of the posts in question are partisan in nature and criticize or ridicule “misogynist liberals,” Hillary Rodham Clinton, rap artist Sean P-Diddy Combs, and “illegal alien immigrants.”

Higgs is a telecommunications and entertainment lawyer with Potomac, Maryland-based Shulman Rogers Gandal Pordy & Ecker P.A. and a former staffer for Republican former Rep. Connie Morella. He is currently the chairman of the Montgomery County Republican Central Committee.

Higgs did not respond to a request for an interview regarding his social media activity.

In an August 2011 post obtained by The Daily Record, Higgs wrote: “#newsflash, Illegal alien immigrants now to be referred to as #UndocumentedDemocrats.”

In another, dated Feb. 26, 2012, Higgs re-Tweeted another person’s post: “It’s been almost 12 hours, when will Diddy’s black power salute start getting less awkward? Never, just wrong!”

In a third, Higgs writes that Clinton “not being seen for 3 (weeks) equals cover facelift.”

In a July 2012 post, Higgs wrote: “Requiring ID to vote is not racist; Claiming minorities incapable of getting ID to vote is racist.”

The messages were part of a packet provided to the committee.

“Obviously there are issues when one goes from being a partisan advocate or zealot to a position in government, and I think that’s probably a question that will be on the minds of senators,” said Raskin. “Obviously he was playing a very different role when he wrote those things. So, the question is whether he can make a proper transition to a different kind of role.”

Higgs was one of more than 330 appointments delivered to the Senate Feb. 20 by Hogan as part of the governor’s annual green bag appointments. If confirmed, Higgs would replace Lawrence Brenner, a former deputy chief administrative law judge for the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission.

The Senate committee has not yet scheduled a hearing on the nomination of Higgs or Jeannette Mills, who was also appointed to the commission by Hogan in February. A spokesman for the governor said last month that both appointments would be delayed until the commission issues a ruling on the proposed merger between Exelon and Pepco. The committee is only scheduled to meet one more time this session on March 30, which means the Higgs and Mills confirmations might not be scheduled until the 2016 session.

The social media posts by Higgs present political challenges for Hogan, who presents himself as a moderate Republican and has shown a willingness to enter into earnest negotiations with Democrats on a number of issues.

Douglass Mayer, a Hogan spokesman, said the comments were essentially the Internet version of a person sticking his foot in his mouth.

“Unfortunately, people say foolish things on the Internet far too often,” Mayer said.

Higgs’ messages are also not the first social media stumbling block placed in the path of a state employee since Hogan took office.

Michael A. Allred was fired from his position as the  state stat coordinator and police liaison at the Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services after an inappropriate Facebook post.

Allred, in a Facebook post, wrote: “Visiting the prisons…haven’t been groped this much since the flight on the honeymoon…and this is just the guards,” and then tagged his agency Sec. Stephen T. Moyer.

Sen. Catherine E. Pugh, D-Baltimore City and a member of the nominations committee, said social media is becoming a more important part of screening applicants in both the private and public sectors.

“Employers look at Facebook now,” Pugh said. “I think social media is very important. Nobody should disregard its potential meaning.”

Still, Raskin said he and the committee will attempt to determine what the posts really mean.

“We’re not going to give people the guillotine just because they have a Facebook account and a few jocular posts,” Raskin said. “The question is: What’s the pattern? What are the implications and what does it foretell for the future?”