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Longtime MES official says ex-chief’s expenses, severance were unique

Roy McGrath has resigned his job as chief of staff to Gov. Larry Hogan. (The Daily Record/File Photo)

Former MES Director Roy McGrath is disputing a longtime agency official’s contention that his expenses and severance package were unusual for the organization. (The Daily Record/File Photo)

A longtime employee of the Maryland Environmental Service told state lawmakers that Roy McGrath, the former director, worsened morale and treated the government entity more as a private corporation and that his six-figure severance and travel were outside the norm for his predecessors.

Beth Wojton, a 32-year veteran of the Maryland Environmental Service who briefly succeeded McGrath after he became chief of staff to Gov. Larry Hogan in June, told a joint legislative committee that the quasi-governmental state corporation changed under her former boss.

“He was very guarded and secretive and most times many of us on the senior staff did not know his whereabouts,” said Wojton. “He was very concerned about appearance and didn’t exactly connect with our employees. His primary focus was communications and social media. He absolutely would not tolerate any criticism or negative feedback from staff. It was not a very pleasant work environment. He instituted policies and procedures that were often difficult to defend or explain to employees.”

The Maryland Environmental Service is an independent, quasi-governmental agency that oversees more than 1,000 environmental projects in the state and mid-Atlantic region, according to the nonprofit organization’s website.

Funding for the group comes mostly through contracts with state and local government agencies as well as federal grants. Much of the work is “dirty” and the agency has to offer incentives, including bonuses for hitting goals, to attract employees, who are not part of the state personnel system or eligible for state retirement benefits.

McGrath, she said, approached the agency as a private business.

“Other directors were more employee-focused, more client-focused,” she said.

Questions remain about McGrath’s severance payout — about $233,000 plus an additional $5,250 in tuition expenses — as he left the agency and became Hogan’s chief of staff.

“I think that lies at the heart of what we are trying to get at, and it’s very difficult to be able to discern the answer without Mr. McGrath’s presence here,” said Sen. Clarence Lam, D-Howard and Baltimore counties and co-chair of the Joint Committee Fair Practices and State Personnel Oversight, which conducted the hearing.

The hearing is the second in two weeks concerning McGrath, who served as director of the agency — but frequently referred to himself as “CEO,” according to Wojton — for nearly four  years before being named by Hogan as his chief of staff.  Prior to joining MES, McGrath served as deputy chief of staff to Hogan and as the governor’s liaison to the Board of Public Works.

He served as Hogan’s chief of staff for less than three months before resigning as news of his payout became public.

McGrath again rejected a request to appear before the committee as did Matthew Sherring, a top aide to McGrath at MES. Sherring, a longtime associate of McGrath, having worked together at the National Association of Chain Drug Stores, joined MES in a position created specifically for him.

“It would behoove Mr. McGrath to cooperate with this committee,” said Lam.

McGrath’s tenure has come under scrutiny following reports of a six-figure severance paid to him as he switched jobs as well as tens of thousands of dollars in expenses and tuition reimbursement requests — some filed two years late — surfaced.

In one case, McGrath filed for more than $14,400 in reimbursement for a seminar at Harvard. The reimbursement request, filed days after he became chief of staff, was nearly three times the written policy limit for tuition reimbursement.

“I don’t recall this happening before,” Wojton told the committee.

McGrath, in an email to a reporter, rejected the assertion that the expense violated policies on tuition reimbursement.

“It was incorrect to say that the Harvard SEF Program was tuition,” McGrath said. “It is a non-degree non-credit bearing program, originally registered for in January, as I recall, but delayed due to COVID. It was handled the same as many other MES’ employee reimbursements for training and programs like ‘Leadership Maryland‘ fees. None of those are treated as tuition.”

And while Wojton painted a picture of McGrath as a leader, her testimony may not have shed light on central questions surrounding whether Hogan knew and approved of the large severance paid to his former chief of staff.

Hogan said last week before a committee hearing that he had no knowledge of a severance package for McGrath.

In text messages, McGrath pleaded with Hogan to clarify that statement and back his assertions to the agency’s board that he had cleared his severance package, which he told them was “anticipated” and approved by Hogan. Board members did not directly ask Hogan for approval, saying they feared doing so would anger McGrath, who could hurt the agency in his role as chief of staff.

“The statement yesterday is being misinterpreted,” McGrath wrote in a text to Hogan. “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 misled MES. I did not. 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, speaking on Tuesday, repeated he was unaware of the severance deal prior to its approval.

“We didn’t discuss anything and we didn’t agree to anything,” Hogan said during a Tuesday news conference.

Hogan said he turned over the text messages, which were sent to him by McGrath after a hearing last week.

“I can’t tell you what the purpose of sending that text,” said Hogan, who said he did not respond to it.

The text messages were first reported by The Washington Post.

The governor said he only learned of the severance two months after McGrath joined his office.

Wojton joined the agency under Gov. William Donald Schaefer. During her three decades at the agency she held a number of titles, including deputy director and later acting director before the appointment of Dr. Charles Glass, who succeeded McGrath.

“I got the impression that MES was still going to be under Roy’s control,” said Wojton, adding that she didn’t want to leave the agency but also didn’t want to continue in a scenario where McGrath continued to exert control.

Wojton, who retired shortly after McGrath left the agency, painted a picture of a her boss as aloof and business-like, concerned with social media and public image, even requiring agency fleet vehicles parked in front of the building to be washed.

McGrath frequently avoided contact with employees by taking the back stairs to his office during the 12-18 hours a week she said he was in the office. He ended office gatherings — birthday and other celebrations that included food in the conference room — which hurt morale, Wojton said.

“People were always tense around him,” said Wojton.

McGrath, in a written reply to questions, defended his work out of the office.

“A key function of mine, as CEO, was external to drive new engagement and awareness of MES,” McGrath wrote. “Mrs. Wojton, as COO, who was paid similarly to me ($209K), was primarily internally focused. I consistently worked in excess of 56 hours per week (often times much higher), some at the office, some on the road, and some teleworking.”

McGrath, Wojton said, traveled more than any other previous director even as McGrath clamped down on training and work-related travel for agency employees. The reasons for McGrath’s trips were not always clear, she said.

“The higher level of external engagement was central to our strategic plan to elevate awareness of and engagement with MES,” McGrath wrote. “Some trips were for speaking opportunities (some by by me and other MES executives too); some were in pursuit of growing our environmental network (e.g. – GreenBiz); and some were for learning purposes. Many were specifically for partnership development. The numerous trips I made to Western Maryland, for example, helped secure a historic water partnership with Garrett County. The trip we took to Verona, Italy in the fall of 2017, together with Howard County Government executives, followed by a similar trip made by other MES executives in 2019, not including me, resulted in a productive, ongoing business relationship for MES.”

 


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