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Md. health secretary accuses Senate president of quid pro quo on confirmation

Gov. Larry Hogan shakes hands with Sen. Mike Miller in the Senate Chamber. (The Daily Record / Maximilian Franz)

Gov. Larry Hogan shakes hands with Sen. Mike Miller in the Senate Chamber. The pair are now locked in an acrimonious battle over the fate of Hogan’s nominee to be health secretary, who is claiming that Miller demanded he oppose a planned cardiac center at Anne Arundel Medical Center in exchange for his confirmation. (The Daily Record / Maximilian Franz)

The state’s acting health secretary is accusing Maryland Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr. of pressuring him to block a request for a cardiac surgery program in return for a favorable confirmation vote.

Acting Health Secretary Dennis R. Schrader and a spokesman for Gov. Larry Hogan made the accusations against Miller in what is the latest twist on an ongoing dispute over the appointment of Schrader and another Cabinet official. That dispute is part of a constitutional standoff between the executive and legislative branches that could wind up in a courtroom.

Schrader, who was only made available by email, said he spoke with Miller on at least two occasions. In those conversations, the acting health secretary said the Senate president asked him to intercede with the independent Maryland Health Care Commission to deny the application for the cardiac program at the Anne Arundel Medical Center or rescind the commission’s approval.

“I can confirm that I met on multiple occasions with Senate President Mike Miller and he made it clear to me that my confirmation was contingent on me influencing the process to ensure that AAMC would not receive a cardiac surgery (certificate of need),” Schrader wrote in an email response. “Obviously, I refused to do so.”

Miller, a strong supporter of the Prince George’s  County Regional Medical Center, has said it would be unfairly harmed if the cardiac center was approved for the Anne Arundel facility.

Jake Weissmann, a spokesman for the Senate president, said Miller never spoke to Hogan or his staff regarding Schrader’s appointment in any manner in Schrader’s confirmation was linked to the approval of the certificate of need for the proposed hospital program.

“Senator Miller stated on the first day of session that he was supporting Secretary Schrader, repeated that in the hearing, and privately told the administration and former Senator Sandy Schrader that innumerable times,” Weissmann wrote in an email. “The issue of the (certificate of need) was concluded before the governor’s abrupt withdrawal of Schrader.”

Concerns regarding the proposed cardiac surgery unit were not part of Schrader’s March 20 confirmation hearing.

Sen. William C. “Bill” Ferguson, D-Baltimore City and chair of the Senate Executive Nominations Committee, said most senators were focused on Schrader’s views on the proposed repeal of the Affordable Care Act and his lack of public health experience.

“It seriously does not surprise me that they are scrambling to come up with an excuse for (Hogan’s) actions,” Ferguson said.

Dennis Schrader.

Dennis Schrader.

Schrader Thursday declined to answer questions related to the details of the meetings with Miller, including dates and specific number of meetings and where they were held, citing a “number of meetings this afternoon” that prevented him from participating in any interview.

Victoria Gruber, Miller’s chief of staff, said she was in a meeting between Schrader and Miller and described it as cordial.

“It is no secret that Senator Miller believes the new Prince George’s Regional Medical Center is a critical project and that it has his very strong support,” Gruber said in an email. “He did talk about the importance of the project to the State’s  second largest County and majority African American jurisdiction. He also expressed frustration to Acting Health Secretary Schrader that Senators from the County were upset that the operating and capital funding for the Hospital had been cut and that Anne Arundel Medical Center was mounting a very political campaign for a competing  program that could harm the project and that he believed a number of senators would have concerns supporting him when the viability of the Hospital and new Regional Medical Center were at risk.

“He also reiterated his great admiration for former Senator Sandy Schrader and stated that he planned to support Mr. Schrader’s nomination.”

State law establishes the Maryland Health Care Commission as an independent panel and prohibits a health secretary from getting involved in the process for approving a proposed medical program.

Douglass Mayer, a Hogan spokesman, said the governor refused to go along with the request from Miller.

“By any normal person’s view, attempting to make the appointment of a Cabinet official contingent on the executive branch taking an illegal action is unethical on its face,” Mayer said. “If it is not specifically against the legislative code of ethics it darn well should be, and it certainly violates the code of common sense.”

 

Schrader is a retired U.S. Navy captain and a professional engineer who has held senior positions in the public and private sectors. He served in executive positions at the University of Maryland Medical System Corporation from 1987 to 2003 and as Maryland’s homeland security director under then Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., also a Republican, and as a Howard County elected official.

“I knew there was concern about the (certificate of need) generally,” Ferguson said. “I can say definitively that this was not a reason that I held the scheduling (of Schrader’s nomination). A lot of us had concerns we had were about whether or not he was qualified for the position.”

Ferguson said that while the consensus on Shrader’s qualifications “was mixed,” he believed Schrader would have been confirmed had Hogan not withdrawn the nomination.

Ferguson said the Hogan administration’s assertions of a quid pro quo were untrue and meant to divert public attention from the governor’s re-appointment of Schrader instead of allowing him to come before the full Senate for a vote.

“Unfortunately, because out governor finds it inconvenient, it is undermining our constitutional government,” Ferguson said.

Mayer responded by saying Ferguson was a puppet committee chairman.

“Everyone in Annapolis knows that Senate President Miller is the actual one in charge of the Senate Executive Nominations Committee,” Mayer said. “It’s no surprise to me that Bill Ferguson has no idea what is going on. However, I don’t believe anything he has to say anyways.”

Sen. J.B. Jennings, R-Baltimore and Harford counties and Senate minority leader, said the linkage of Anne Arundel Medical Center’s proposed cardiac program to Schrader’s confirmation was only a rumor during the session. Jennings, in his capacity as the Senate’s top Republican and a member of the Executive Nominations Committee, had conversations about appointments with both Miller and Hogan’s office.

“I was not privy to those kinds of conversations,” Jennings said of the alleged quid pro quo. “It was never brought up to me.”

Jennings said he had assurances from Miller that Schrader would be confirmed as the session began to draw to a close and a vote had yet to be scheduled.

“I’ve gone to (Miller) on a number of things and he’s given me his word,” Jennings said. “He’s always followed through with it. He never gave me any indication there was a problem with Schrader. It was never on my radar screen that (Schrader) wasn’t going to get a vote. I took him at his word.”

Schrader is one of two Cabinet secretaries embroiled in a constitutional standoff between the executive and legislative branches.

Hogan re-appointed Schrader and acting Planning Secretary Wendi Peters earlier this year after withdrawing both of their nominations before the Senate could hold confirmation votes.

The legislature added language to the budget preventing Hogan from paying either as they had not been confirmed.

Hogan has vowed to pay his appointees. State Treasurer Nancy K. Kopp has said she will not pay them, following the budget language and advice from the Office of the Attorney General.

The Senate took up Schrader’s appointment earlier this year as the Maryland Health Care Commission was set to review an request by the Anne Arundel Medical Center to open a cardiac surgery unit. The commission granted the certificate of need.

The commission’s approval is now the subject of an ongoing battle in Prince George’s County Circuit Court.

Miller has opposed the Anne Arundel hospital’s request, saying it would be unfair competition for the struggling Prince George’s Medical Center, a facility in a county he partially represents.

“The effort by Anne Arundel Medical Center to duplicate services and draw from the University of Maryland Medical System’s newly reinvigorated cardiac program at (Prince George’s County Regional Medical Center) will without a doubt threaten the viability of this project at this time,” Miller wrote in an August 2016 letter, according to The Annapolis Capitol newspaper.

Hogan saw the Senate review of his health secretary delayed with a hearing coming in late March as the 90-day session was waning.

The health care commission approved Anne Arundel Medical Center’s application just three days after Schrader’s March 20 hearing before the Senate Executive Nominations. Hogan withdrew Schrader’s nomination 10 days later after the Senate committee failed to hold a vote.

Mayer, Hogan’s spokesman, charged the legislature with “playing politics” with the appointment at the time but did not elaborate.

“It’s highly unusual if not unprecedented,” Mayer said recently of the delays in Schrader’s confirmation process.


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