ANNAPOLIS (March 16, 2018)—The Maryland House Appropriations Committee this week debated a bill regarding the hiring of state employees that would add more oversight to enforce laws enacted by the legislature more than a decade ago.
Delegate Clarence Lam, D-Howard and Baltimore counties, introduced House bill 1788 in response to his concerns over a possible change in the hiring practice at the Maryland Department of Health.
An email from March of 2017 obtained by Capital News Service summarized a new hiring policy for at-will employees at the health department that would require vetting by the governor's office of appointments for three types of positions.
The policy otherwise appears to have been unwritten.
A representative from the state health department in a statement to Capital News Service last week said there had been no change.
"I have some serious concerns about what's taking place in state government," Lam said in his testimony on Tuesday. "I have no direct information showing that currently the workforce is being politicized, but I don't know what criteria the appointments office is using to determine who can be employed or if someone can receive their promotion."
The governor's office and Republicans on the committee on Tuesday said that the appointments office is not directing agencies on whom to hire, and that vetting employees upon request of an agency is standard practice.
Lam said the practice potentially undermines state legislation enacted in 2007 that prohibits the appointments office from hiring candidates for certain positions, and promoting or firing employees in certain positions.
"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. What they don't do is determine whether an applicant's technical expertise meets the requirements of the position—the agencies do that," Amelia Chasse, spokeswoman for Hogan, wrote in a statement to Capital News Service last week.
There is no evidence of inappropriate firings, Lam told the committee, rather it's the vetting process itself that he says, in some cases, goes against state law.
Republicans on the House Appropriations Committee contested Lam's claims, calling them hearsay.
An informational letter provided to legislators on the committee from Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan's Office of Appointments on Tuesday also aimed to clarify the agency's role in the hiring of state employees.
The letter from Secretary of Appointments Christian Cavey explained in detail that the appointments office is involved in the hiring of special appointees—a class of state employees that is exempt from the 2007 laws prohibiting the appointments office's involvement in the hiring of certain employees.
The appointments office and the governor are allowed by statute to be involved in the hiring of special appointees, which Lam acknowledged.
Cavey's letter said that his agency only participates in hiring when state agencies request the appointments office's help, is not involved in the hiring of merit-based employees—those below grade 18 in the state grading scale—and does "not make a recommendation to the agency regarding whether they should or should not hire a particular candidate."
But the letter did not directly address Lam's concern that all health department candidates for positions above grade 18 roles—known as "at-will" employees—were being sent to the appointments office for vetting.
There are six classification for state employees. The 2007 law bars the governor's office from presiding over four of those classifications: Management service, skilled service, executive service and designated appointments.
The governor and appointments office can direct hires, promotions and terminations for two other classifications of employees: executive service and special appointments—aka special political appointments.
"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," Chasse wrote in the statement to Capital News Service last week.
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 some employees, including legislative liaisons and communications or executive associates, technical positions and program managers, the email said.
"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 last week in an email to Capital News Service. "For countless administrations, the Office of Appointments has assisted state agencies with finding appropriate potential new hires."
Lam said he's concerned that the governor's appointments office is overstepping its authority.
"I stand by my statement that the Maryland Department of Health is requiring all new applicants and positions being considered for promotions to go through the appointments office," Lam told Capital News Service.
According to a letter from Sandra Brantley—the counsel to the General Assembly at the Office of the Attorney General of Maryland—to Lam, a practice of delegating all appointment authority to the appointments office would be "inconsistent with state law."
"The hearing itself and the numerous false accusations made during (it) were nothing more than a weak political stunt that ultimately failed," Chasse on Wednesday wrote in an emailed statement to Capital News Service. "This administration is committed to hiring the best and most qualified people possible and we aren't going to allow deliberately uninformed and partisan politicians stop that from happening."
The appointments office said in its letter that the office is not making hiring decisions. Instead, they are vetting—performing background checks—for certain positions when asked by other state agencies. The vetting, the letter explains, is based on a form on the appointments office website, which asks candidates biographical, resume and other questions. (govapps.md.gov/appointments/apply/)
"There's a difference between vetting someone and telling someone who to hire," Delegate Jefferson Ghrist, R-Kent, Queen Anne's, Cecil and Caroline, said at the hearing. "When you vet someone, you're just asking questions, following up on their application, making sure that what they're giving you is accurate."
But at least one organization and a handful of Democratic delegates are worried about how hiring decisions are made in some employees' cases.
"What I'm concerned about is the vetting that takes place prior to the hiring. If a cabinet secretary is hiring somebody only after they've been vetted by the governor's appointments office," Sue Esty, legislative and political director for the state employees' union, AFSCME Maryland, told the committee. "That seems to be quite out of line with the way things are supposed to function."
Ghrist said he didn't see an issue with vetting from the appointments office.
"You would think that you would actually want another set of eyes on these applications in the background so that way you know for sure that you're hiring somebody that's actually qualified for the position," Ghrist said.
It has to do with the "integrity of state government," Esty said. "In each one of these departments you should have a certain degree of specialization and understanding of what happens, and as soon as that begins to erode and appointments are not made based on expertise, that's when you see the potential for deterioration of the quality of state government."
Lam plans to proceed with his legislation—should the Democrat-majority committee vote it onward—which would allow the Maryland State Ethics Commission to investigate violations of existing statutes that prohibit the Governor's Appointments Office from participating in the hiring or promotion of certain state employees, according to his testimony.
Michael Lord, executive director of the state's ethics commission, testified before the committee in opposition to Lam's bill. He also submitted written testimony.
"The (ethics) commission has no position on the issues that give rise to this bill, we don't know anything about those issues," Lord said before the committee. "We're opposed to this bill quite simply because … the commission believes it is absolutely not the right vehicle to enforce the particular bill."
Delegate Kirill Reznik, D-Montgomery, asked Lord at the hearing, "if this committee and this body was to say that this bill as drafted is appropriate and passes it this way, do you believe that you would be able to fulfil this charge, or do you believe that you are expressly prohibited by law from doing the job that is intended in this bill?"
"We can and will do whatever this body tells us to do," Lord said, adding that the ethics commission would need more resources to fulfil the duties outlined in Lam's bill.