ANNAPOLIS, Maryland — Concerns about a possible hiring-policy change at the Maryland Department of Health involving Gov. Larry Hogan’s appointments office prompted legislation that would add more oversight to enforce laws enacted by the state more than a decade ago.
Former Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich, R, took office in 2003. Shortly thereafter, employees at multiple state agencies who were not believed to be loyal to the Republican governor were fired.
In response, the Democrat-controlled legislature created a committee to examine Ehrlich’s personnel practices. The Special Joint Committee on State Employee Rights and Protections returned a report on Oct. 12, 2006, that recommended changes to Maryland law.
Lawmakers in turn enacted legislation in 2007 that prohibited the Governor’s Appointments Office from overruling an agency’s authority over certain “at-will” hires, promotions, firings and more within state departments.
The Governor’s Appointments Office does have authority to choose employees for certain positions, including executive branch employees, direct or political appointees, the governor and lieutenant governor’s staff, the governor’s house employees and special appointments. These classifications could include legislative liaisons or communications staffers in state agencies.
That 2007 legislation may need to be updated, said Delegate Clarence Lam, D-Howard and Baltimore counties. Lam told Capital News Service he’s concerned that there has been a change in the hiring policy at the state health department that potentially undermines the statute.
“Approximately a year ago we received an email telling us that the procedure for hiring at-will staff was changing,” said Isabelle Horon, former director of the Vital Statistics Administration within the state health department. Horon left the department in June after 27 years working there.
Capital News Service obtained a copy of the email.
“Starting then, we would be required to get permission from the governor’s (appointments) office before an at-will position could be filled,” Horon said.
At-will hires work for the state at a grade 18 or above in the Maryland employment scale, Lam said. The status of their employment is at the will of the person who hired them — known as the hiring authority — which is usually the employee’s supervisor within a department.
A physician or pathologist at the Office of the Chief Medical Examiner, for example, would be above grade 18, Lam explained. Those positions are considered at-will, but not necessarily under the hiring purview of the Governor’s Appointments Office.
The concern, Lam said, is that the governor’s staff may have been vetting all at-will employees, including those in professional positions that require specific health-related qualifications.
But the health department told Capital News Service that there has been no change.
“I can confirm there has been no policy change at the Department of Health,” Brittany Fowler, deputy director of communications at the health department, wrote in an email. “For countless administrations, the Office of Appointments has assisted state agencies with finding appropriate potential new hires.”
A representative for Hogan, who was the appointments secretary under Ehrlich from 2003 to early 2007, said the governor’s checks do not extend to whether an applicant meets specific job qualifications.
“One of the roles of the governor’s appointments office is to — upon request — perform basic background checks, including criminal and public records, to ensure that prospective employees for high-level, at-will positions are suitable for employment by the state,” Amelia Chasse, a spokeswoman for Hogan, wrote in an email.
“In general, the office’s primary function is to help ensure these taxpayer-paid employees don’t have obviously disqualifying criminal histories or clear conflicts of interest,” she wrote. “What they don’t do is determine whether an applicant’s technical expertise meets the requirements of the position — the agencies do that.”
Lam has introduced House bill 1788 this session, he said, because the protections created in 2007 to prevent interference in the hiring of state employees, “while well-meaning and needed, were insufficient.”
The bill, which would add a layer of oversight to the hiring process for certain state employees, is scheduled for a hearing in the House Appropriations committee on March 13.
Allison Taylor, former chief of staff for Public Health Services at the department of health, authored the email, which she sent to other health department employees. She confirmed the validity of the email to Capital News Service.
The email shared notes from a routine executive staff meeting with then-Secretary of Health Dennis Schrader — a regular practice, Horon said.
Taylor has since left the department.
Hogan nominated Schrader — who served as the governor’s appointments secretary for most of 2016 — as health secretary in late 2016. The Maryland Senate failed to confirm Schrader, who served as acting secretary until Jan. 9, 2018. He is now COO and Medicaid director at the health department.
Requests for comment from Schrader were referred to Fowler.
The 2017 email among Health Department employees detailed “a new process for at-will hiring, with a greater emphasis on using the Governor’s Appointments Office.”
The appointments office “will need to vet the candidates” the health department selected for three categories of employees: legislative liaisons and communications or executive associates; technical positions, such as physicians and laboratory scientists; and program managers, the email showed.
The policy was otherwise undocumented, said Horon, who was a recipient of the email.
“Having an unwritten policy of unknown criteria potentially interferes with the ability of us to find the best-qualified people with the right background in health,” said Lam, who is a physician. “I think in most instances … the immediate supervisor of the position that’s being filled… has the best awareness of the responsibilities of that role.”
If a far-removed authority makes hiring decisions, rather than a direct supervisor, Lam said, there’s a concern that the most qualified person — with specific health experience — may not get the job.
But Fowler maintains that the health agency is committed to choosing the best employees.
“The Department always strives to ensure that we are recruiting and hiring the most qualified candidates available to best serve the people of Maryland,” Fowler wrote.
Capital News Service also obtained a letter from Sandra Brantley, counsel to the General Assembly at the Attorney General’s office to Lam, who had asked whether it is legal for an agency to direct all at-will applicants to the appointments office.
“It is inconsistent with State law for an agency to broadly delegate all appointment authority to the Appointments Office,” according to Brantley’s letter.
Capital News Service encourages anybody with information about state personnel practices at any state agency to email firstname.lastname@example.org.
*This story has been updated from an earlier version to include a response from Gov. Larry Hogan’s Office.