Two Maryland cabinet secretaries are the unlikely figures at the center of a growing political brawl between the state’s Republican governor and the Democratic-majority legislature that could end up in court.
The dispute, over whether the legislature can prohibit the state from paying appointees whose nominations were sent to the state Senate but not approved, prompted an extraordinary allegation this week from Doug Mayer, Gov. Larry Hogan’s chief spokesman.
Mayer accused Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr. (D-Calvert), the most powerful Democrat in Annapolis, of threatening to kill one of the nominations unless Hogan forced the state hospital commission to stop the creation of a new cardiac program at Anne Arundel Medical Center.
Miller has strongly denied the allegation, and Mayer has offered no proof the conversations happened, although Dennis Schrader, the acting health secretary, echoed his account.
Mayer made his claim after state Treasurer Nancy K. Kopp (D), under advice from the office of state Attorney General Brian E. Frosh (D), refused to pay Schrader and acting planning secretary Wendi Peters past June 30, the end of the fiscal year.
In addition to their salaries, the executives are at risk of losing their benefits, including health insurance coverage.
Schrader, 64, was named in December to lead Maryland’s 9,000-employee health department, which is trying to address the state’s opioid epidemic and deal with the possible repeal of the federal Affordable Care Act and the loss to the state of up to $2 billion in Medicaid funds.
A director of the Office of Homeland Security under the state’s last Republican governor, Robert Ehrlich, Schrader has a degree in industrial engineering but no background in health policy.
He spent two years as deputy administrator for national preparedness at the Federal Emergency Management Agency and worked for 16 years at the University of Maryland Medical System, serving in roles including facility management, director of operations and the vice president for project planning.
The Senate Executive Nominations Committee, which includes Miller, never scheduled a vote on Schrader’s nomination during this year’s legislative session. With days to go, Hogan withdrew his name from consideration.
Miller, the longest serving senate president in the country, said he told both Hogan and Schrader’s wife, who is a former state senator, he planned to support the nomination.
But he and other senators first wanted Hogan to withdraw the nomination of Peters, who they said was not qualified. Mayer says Hogan and Schrader’s wife were told no such thing.
Peters, 54, was tapped by Hogan in July 2016 to run the small state planning agency after serving about a year as its deputy. She studied political science at Loyola University and worked nearly 30 years as a paralegal before taking the deputy job. She also served six years on the Mount Airy planning commission, and was elected to the council in 2004 and again in 2008.
Miller said senators had received numerous complaints about Peters’s handling of the department, and he thought it was best for Hogan to move her to another position.
Mayer says Peters ran the department for nearly two years, and had as much local planning experience as her predecessor, David Craig.
But the Senate panel rejected Peters’ nomination, calling her unqualified and saying she lacked the planning and managerial experience to run the agency.
Hogan reappointed both Schrader and Peters to their posts in April, just days after the General Assembly adjourned.
Hogan was told by the attorney general’s office he had the authority to withdraw the nominees’ names and reappoint them after the session.
But the Democratic-majority legislature passed a budget provision barring the payment of anyone who is reappointed after their nomination was rejected or not acted upon.
After the fiscal year began July 1, Frosh said in a letter the secretaries should not be paid. Sen. Bill Ferguson (D-Baltimore City), the chairman of the Senate nominations panel, sought the attorney general’s opinion.
Robert F. Scholz, Hogan’s chief legal counsel, said the provision is “inappropriate,” and violates separation of powers.
He said the legislature is attempting to control the governor’s appointments through the budget appropriations. But Senate Democrats argue Hogan is trying to upend the Senate’s role in the confirmation process.
They say the budget language was added as a precaution in response to Peters’s nomination.
Minority Leader J.B. Jennings (R-Harford County), who is also a member of the nominations committee, said the “confirmation process needs to be preserved” because of the “vital” role the Senate plays in ensuring nominees are qualified.
At the same time, he said he was deeply concerned the state health secretary is not being paid, especially during crucial negotiations over the future of health care on the state and federal levels.
“When he’s in Washington fighting on this, how is he being perceived?” Jennings asked. “Are federal agencies going to listen to him? I want to make sure the governor has the people in place to fight for us. And now he doesn’t, and it’s wrong.”
After Kopp decided not to pay Schrader and Peters, Mayer decried the confirmation process, saying an “influential” senator — who he would not name — had told Hogan Schrader’s appointment would be blocked unless he or the governor got the health commission, which is independent, to change its decision.
Miller is a strong proponent of the Prince George’s hospital system and its cardiac program, and has been critical of the Maryland Health Care Commission’s decision to let Anne Arundel have a similar program in proximity.
“The request [was] incredibly unethical, and the action would have been flat out illegal,” Mayer said. A day later, Mayer identified the senator he was accusing as Miller, who dismissed the allegation as “absolutely false.”
Miller said he was surprised when Hogan withdrew Schrader’s name.
Hogan, who was in Rhode Island at a governor’s conference, was not available for an interview Friday. Schrader also declined to be interviewed, though he echoed Mayer’s allegations in an email. He said Miller asked him to get involved in the commission’s approval of the Anne Arundel cardiac program, and said his confirmation would not happen until the approval was pulled. Schrader would not say when the alleged conversations took place.
Jennings said he heard “rumors”during the legislative session that Miller was pushing to cancel Anne Arundel’s cardiac-surgery certificate, but he was assured by Miller that Schrader would be confirmed.
Mayer said he did not reveal Miller’s alleged threats until this week, months after they allegedly occurred, because the administration “thought cooler heads would prevail.”
“But unfortunately they chose a different path” and decided to withhold the salaries, he said.
Mayer said there are no plans from the governor’s office to initiate an ethics review against Miller: “It is our hope that we can move forward from this and continue to work in the largely successful way that we have with the Senate president.”
In the meantime, the governor, Peters and Schrader have requested outside counsel and are exploring their options, including a legal challenge.