A Maryland Senate panel Monday delayed its confirmation vote for a former aide to Gov. Larry Hogan (R) who has been accused of improperly collaborating with the governor’s office while serving as an interim member of the Public Service Commission.
Michael T. Richard, whom Hogan has nominated to fill the commission spot permanently, faced tough questions from the Senate Executive Nominations Committee about whether his communications with the administration amounted to an attempt to give the governor an upper hand in influencing decisions by the commission.
The committee did not set a new date for the confirmation vote.
According to emails obtained by the consumer advocacy group Public Citizen, Richard gave information to his former colleagues in the governor’s office about an offshore wind-power company’s application for renewable-energy credits and sought information from them as the commission was weighing a ruling on a solar energy project.
Public Citizen and the Energy and Policy Institute, a clean-energy advocacy group, said the communications “create a disturbing picture of undue influence over decisions before the purportedly independent Public Service Commission” and could amount to talking to decision-makers without input from other interested parties.
Richard, who joined the commission in January, said he was merely helping aides transition into his former role with the administration and keeping the governor’s staff updated on the status of various deliberations without divulging sensitive information.
He added that members of the commission, which regulates Maryland utilities, taxi companies, railroads and telecommunications companies, regularly talked to him about similar matters when he was Hogan’s deputy chief of staff.
“I am sorry that I created a doubt about my independence,” Richard said. “The way I saw these activities is trying to be very conscientious about handing off my portfolio.”
Several Democratic lawmakers pressed Richard on his responses.
“Can’t you see there’s a reasonable question of whose team you’re on?” asked Sen. James Brochin (D-Baltimore County).
Hogan spokesman Matt Clark called Richard an “incredibly qualified person” and said it was “entirely appropriate for members of the PSC to take input from a variety of sources, including industry, advocacy organizations, the legislature and the governor’s office.”
But the emails obtained by Public Citizen show Richard acting as more of an administration advocate and informer than an independent commissioner seeking guidance.
“This is NOT yet public information, but I wanted you to be aware,” Richard wrote Jan. 29 to Adam Dubitsky, Hogan’s policy director, about an offshore wind-power company’s application for renewable energy credits.
“In short, there will be a 30-day internal review. . . . So, there is time to form an Administration position and response. Again, this is for your information only.”
In another email, Richard asked Dubitsky for a statement from the Maryland Energy Administration, which advises the governor on energy policy, saying it would bolster Richard’s efforts to scale back the ambitions of a solar energy initiative.
“Adam, I can use your help in Community Solar rule making process,” he wrote to Dubitsky in February. “Another Administration statement on the ‘pilot project’ size not exceeding 150MW would be helpful (so far I’ve only been able to talk the other commissioners down to 218MW) . . . let’s discuss a possible statement via MEA that I can use to vigorously assert the Governor’s office position on this.”
Advocates argued that a commissioner feeding the administration information about internal deliberations would create a potential conflict of interest, especially because the executive branch could use that information when filing briefs aimed at influencing the commission’s rulemaking.
Clark noted that Hogan’s predecessor, Martin O’Malley (D), also appointed members of his administration to the Public Service Commission — and the nominees were criticized for email exchanges they had with the panel while working for O’Malley.
Those criticisms were raised by Republicans, and the appointees were defended by Democrats, Clark said.
“I reject that there is some kind of nuanced difference between what we’re seeing today and what we saw four years ago,” Clark said.