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To dodge spousal privilege, prosecutors want to use McGrath vacation texts

Prosecutors are seeking to introduce potentially damaging text messages into evidence ahead of the trial for Roy McGrath, a former top aide to Gov. Larry Hogan who is facing federal wire fraud and theft charges.

The text messages are particularly important because McGrath has married the woman who sent them since being indicted, opening up the possibility that she will claim spousal privilege to avoid testifying against her now-husband.

McGrath served as Hogan’s chief of staff for just over two months before resigning amid revelations about the six-figure severance package he negotiated when he stepped down from his previous job as executive director of the Maryland Environmental Service.

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A federal grand jury indicted McGrath on eight counts in connection with the severance payment and $170,000 in questionable expenses racked up during his three years in leadership at MES.

The text messages referenced in Tuesday’s filing relate to allegations that McGrath took two trips — a European cruise in August 2019 and a stay in Naples, Florida, over Christmas that year —  without taking leave from work. McGrath instead claimed that he worked a number of hours during both trips so that he was paid for that time.

Prosecutors pulled the text messages from a phone belonging to a woman identified as L.B. in court records.

Exhibits attached to the motion further identify McGrath’s wife by the surname Bruner. A search of court records and online databases shows McGrath shares a Naples, Florida, address with a woman named Laura Bruner.

Joseph Murtha, McGrath’s attorney, did not respond to a request for comment late Tuesday.

According to Tuesday’s motion, L.B. and McGrath have married since he was indicted in October, allowing her to claim spousal privilege to avoid testifying against McGrath.

The motion asks to introduce her text messages from her vacations with McGrath as an alternative to her testimony. The messages are timestamped and corroborated by photographs that L.B. took during the vacations, according to the motion.

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“In addition, the Defendant (McGrath) wrote a review of the Ritz Carlton Hotel for Tripadvisor which describes their stay in Naples, Florida,” prosecutors wrote. “The written account of the Defendant interlocks with the account of L.B. sent to her family providing further indicia of reliability for L.B.’s text messages.”

L.B.’s texts provide detailed descriptions of the couple’s movements during their trips, including a stay in Rome in August 2019. In one text to her father, L.B. wrote that they had seen “the Spanish steps, the colosseum and a few other places around the steps.”

In another text, L.B. wrote that “Roy managed to get us tickets,” apparently to the Vatican museum.

McGrath claimed that he worked 65 hours during that 10-day period.

One of L.B.’s texts from Naples, Florida, over Christmas goes into even more detail. In one message, L.B. writes: “We slept in a bit, had breakfast while it rained, saw a rainbow, sat on the beach and people watched, bought a cookie for the police officer watching the beach (but he left before we could give it to him), I got a free massage, and then we went inside for lunch, I re-read the first 2 chapters of the second Harry Potter book in the library, then we went outside and I read my own book more (Great Expectations, Charles Dickens), we stood in the water for a minute (it’s cold), I got pooped on by a seagull (our signal to go inside), then we both sat by the pool …”

The text goes on to cover the couple’s entire day until they went to bed.

The motion to introduce the text messages came a few days ahead of the deadline in McGrath’s case for motions in limine, which deal with what evidence can be presented at trial. McGrath’s trial is set to begin in about a month.

Prosecutors say the texts should be admitted because they are corroborated by other evidence, including McGrath’s Tripadvisor review and photographs L.B. took on the vacations. The photographs are not attached to the new motion.

“This case is in the unusual posture of a couple vacationing together who are also making individual records of their vacation,” the government wrote.

“L.B. has no motive to lie, and her statements are remarkably candid. Moreover, the photographs which are taken by both L.B. and the Defendant corroborate the recitation of the day’s events in the text messages. For example, L.B. both describes a painting class, and their cell phones contain photographs of the two paintings that the Defendant and L.B. made.”

The indictment alleges that McGrath fraudulently secured his $233,647.23 severance payment from MES by falsely telling the board that Hogan had approved the payment. McGrath is also accused of filing false attendance reports with the agency during times when he was actually on vacation.

The indictment also accuses him of causing MES to pay a museum money that McGrath had pledged to donate and to pay $14,475 in tuition benefits for McGrath to attend a Harvard Kennedy School Executive Education program after he had left MES. Additional charges filed in June allege McGrath faked a document he claimed proved the governor knew of and approved of the severance payment.

McGrath is also facing state charges, which his lawyers sought to block prosecutors from mentioning at the federal trial in a motion filed Monday.