Roy McGrath was a capable leader, helping businesses make deals at a trade organization. Later, he became an adept government administrator executing contracts and making Maryland’s bureaucracy hum.
But McGrath’s career arc took an unexpected turn as he rose through the state government ranks and became then-Gov. Larry Hogan’s chief of staff in 2020. McGrath was eventually accused of improper government spending, lack of accountability, secretly recorded meetings, falsified time cards and one fabricated memo.
He defiantly disputed any wrongdoing — he claimed he had been abandoned for political convenience — and skipped out on a criminal trial. McGrath settled old scores while on the lam in two e-books told from his perspective. And similar to Walter White from “Breaking Bad,” ended up dead from gunfire in Tennessee as authorities closed in Monday night.
The chain of events has left those who knew McGrath shocked and puzzled.
“It just continued to spin out of control,” said former Hogan spokesman Mike Ricci, who worked with McGrath in the State House. “It’s hard to say now what would have happened but I truly believe to this day, if he relented, it would have been different.”
‘A kind of quiet bureaucrat’ to CEO
Until his career imploded in 2020, McGrath was little-known in Maryland’s political world and completely unknown to the general public.
But he held a longtime interest in Republican politics and gradually worked his way into the spotlight as Hogan’s star rose.
McGrath, 53, got into politics early, landing a position on the Republican Party’s central committee in Charles County while he was still a student at the University of Maryland, College Park, according to his official state biography.
In the early 1990s, McGrath worked on the local campaign of President George H.W. Bush and for an unsuccessful congressional candidate by the name of Larry Hogan. He graduated in 1993 with majors in government and politics as well as economics.
McGrath went on to a career with the National Association of Chain Drug Stores, a trade organization in the Washington area, where he worked from 1997 until 2015. He reached the position of vice president of business development, after working as director of business development and conventions.
McGrath teamed up with Hogan again for the governor’s first successful campaign in 2014, helming “Lawyers for Hogan” and working on early voting and election day operations. After Hogan’s upset victory, McGrath was part of the transition team.
Hogan brought McGrath to the State House in 2015 as an adviser on issues before the Board of Public Works, which approves major state contracts, and later as a deputy chief of staff.
“He was a relatively quiet, mild-mannered guy who had a reputation for being good at administrative processes,” said a former Hogan administration official who worked closely with McGrath and requested anonymity because they are involved in McGrath’s federal court case.
“He’s often described as a kind of quiet bureaucrat,” the former official said. “That’s not an inaccurate perception that a lot of folks had in those first few years.”
After about a year and a half in the State House, Hogan sent McGrath to the Maryland Environmental Service in Millersville in 2016.
That’s where McGrath ran into trouble.
“He was highly demanding, very much a micromanager, down to the level of approving daily social media posts,” said Dan Faoro, the Maryland Environmental Service communications director in 2020 and 2021.
McGrath was markedly different from when the two worked together several years before at the chain drug stores association, Faoro said. Back then, McGrath was a sociable team player, responsible for helping run the association’s annual convention and connecting product vendors with buyers from drug store chains.
“There are probably still a lot of members who appreciated the good work he did,” Faoro said. “Roy was right in the middle of it and seemed well-liked. I think that changed at some point.”
That was not the case at the environmental service. McGrath was rarely in his Millersville office, shunned email and was picky about minor issues, such as agency-branded note cards and pens, Faoro said.
McGrath fashioned himself as a “CEO” of the independent agency, which carries out public works and environmental projects across Maryland, mainly for local governments and state agencies that can’t handle the work on their own. Agency employees run water and sewage plants, operate recycling programs and do environmental restoration.
McGrath launched an annual environmental leadership conference and traveled extensively at the environmental service’s expense, including to Italy; Denver; Tucson, Arizona; Philadelphia; New York; and a leadership conference at Disney World.
A return to the State House
While some in the agency quietly complained about their boss, McGrath appeared to remain a star in the eyes of the governor. Hogan plucked McGrath from the environmental service and brought him back to the State House to help with the coronavirus response in March 2020.
It was around this time, prosecutors say, that McGrath began secretly recording meetings with other government officials — including the governor — on his iPhone, in violation of Maryland’s wiretapping law.
By April, Hogan featured McGrath at one of the coronavirus press conferences in the rotunda of the State House.
“Some of us who possess transferable skills have been asked to use those skills in a way that most effectively helps the state serve its citizens,” McGrath said, speaking calmly and deliberately at the lectern.
McGrath thanked Hogan for his “remarkable leadership.”
Weeks later, when Hogan’s chief of staff, Matthew A. Clark, left to take a position at a hospital system, McGrath was tapped as replacement.
As he prepared to depart the Maryland Environmental Service, McGrath sought a severance payment that would ultimately pave the way for his downfall.
McGrath asked the company’s board of directors to approve a lump-sum payment equal to one year’s salary of about $233,000, plus $5,250 in tuition reimbursement and permission to keep his agency-issued phone and laptop, according to meeting minutes and court documents.
Board members later testified under oath that they had reservations about making the payout, but agreed when McGrath led them to believe that Hogan had given his blessing.
Hogan has said he did not know about the details.
The severance payment wasn’t made public until Aug. 13, 2020, when The Baltimore Sun published an article about it. No one from the government initially gave an explanation for the severance: Not McGrath, not Hogan. Investigators later turned up evidence that McGrath attempted to alter the meeting minutes and directed the initial company non-response to reporters’ questions.
McGrath immediately turned defiant following the report.
“I remain focused on my public service job and will not be drawn into the distraction of other’s toxic, partisan politics,” McGrath wrote in one Facebook post.
But after four days, he was out of a job.
As the severance deal became public, Hogan swiftly moved to distance himself from McGrath.
Hogan was expected to be a witness for the prosecution during McGrath’s federal trial, as were other top aides to the governor. One of the charges against McGrath centered around his alleged misrepresentation of Hogan’s support for the severance, and the trial could have shed light on the he-said, he-said issue.
And though McGrath was forced out of the powerful position of chief of staff, his trouble was only beginning.
State lawmakers quickly opened an investigation.
“It immediately appeared that someone who was highly placed in the then-governor’s office was self-dealing from another part of the government,” said Del. Marc Korman, a key figure in the legislative investigation, which was opened at the behest of House of Delegates Speaker Adrienne A. Jones and Senate President Bill Ferguson.
“The severance was the headline, but we learned about many other concerning things,” said Korman, a Montgomery County Democrat who is now his party’s majority leader in the House of Delegates. The committee dug up evidence of extensive travel, high expenses and an “aloofness he had toward his job.”
“The overall perception that he was creating was that he was a Fortune 500 CEO, instead of the executive director of a part of state government,” Korman said.
When McGrath had a chance to explain himself to lawmakers under oath, he stubbornly and repeatedly invoked his Fifth Amendment right not to testify at least 170 times.
The oversight investigation by lawmakers unearthed alleged wrongdoing by McGrath, including improper payments for a Harvard University leadership course and a donation to an art museum in Easton.
Meanwhile, a criminal investigation was also underway, though law enforcement kept it tight-lipped. The existence of the investigation was confirmed more than a year later, on Oct. 5, 2021, when McGrath was charged simultaneously in U.S. District Court in Baltimore and Anne Arundel County Circuit Court on a series of criminal counts, including wire fraud, theft, wiretapping and misconduct in office.
At the time, McGrath wrote an email to a reporter complaining it was all a “political persecution.”
McGrath blamed Hogan, claiming the governor had essentially thrown him under the bus when the severance became politically problematic for the governor.
Soon after he was charged, McGrath sent reporters screenshots of an old instant message that he claimed showed the governor initially supported the severance, and he also sent a copy of what he claimed was a memo from May 2020 with Hogan signing off on the severance. Circulating that memo — which the Hogan administration said was faked — landed McGrath with another charge in federal court of falsifying a document in a federal investigation.
‘An absolute tragedy’
A few weeks later, McGrath changed attorneys and finally went quiet. The court proceedings plodded along, and McGrath, now living in Naples, Florida, attended required hearings via teleconference.
He pleaded not guilty and was allowed to remain free awaiting his trial, which is common for first-time defendants facing nonviolent charges. He was required to surrender his passport and was not allowed to have any guns, and his wife had to turn over a firearm.
The morning of March 13, the first day of the trial, was seasonably cool. Journalists waited outside, hoping for a glimpse of McGrath arriving at the federal courthouse in downtown Baltimore.
McGrath’s attorney, Joseph Murtha, walked toward the courthouse. A reporter asked if McGrath was on his way, and Murtha brightly responded that he hoped so.
It was about 45 minutes later — when McGrath was about 30 minutes late — that it became clear that something serious might be going on. U.S. District Judge Deborah L. Boardman issued a warrant for McGrath’s arrest and hoped for the best.
Federal law enforcement declared McGrath a fugitive, designed wanted posters and offered a reward of $20,000.
While McGrath was on the lam, a mysterious author self-published two e-books on Amazon telling McGrath’s side of the story — with such detail that political insiders were sure McGrath had a hand in the books, or even wrote them himself. Faoro, who once edited McGrath’s writing, said the books sounded like McGrath.
The books were full of petty complaints about people in the Hogan administration and the environmental service, as well as claims of McGrath’s superior leadership skills and dedication to Republican values. Were the books McGrath’s attempt at having the final word, at making his arguments known even as he was in hiding?
Federal agents narrowed the search to the southern U.S. They tracked a Cadillac and multiple phone numbers associated with McGrath and found him in a suburban Knoxville strip mall parking lot.
And on Monday night, it all ended with gunfire in a parking lot outside a gym.
The dramatic and violent end to McGrath’s saga left many to wish that it hadn’t turned out this way.
Hogan, who’d avoided talking about McGrath, issued a statement through a spokesman Monday night: “Yumi and I are deeply saddened by this tragic situation. We are praying for Mr. McGrath’s family and loved ones.”
McGrath’s lawyer expressed regret, too.
“It’s an absolute tragedy, the loss of Roy McGrath’s life and the unfortunate events that have transpired over the past three weeks,” said Murtha, the attorney. “Roy McGrath never wavered about his innocence.”
Even Democrats who investigated McGrath had hoped for a different outcome. “I don’t think this was the ending that anybody wants,” Korman said. “There were lots of different off-ramps along the way.”
McGrath could have returned the severance and apologized. He could have been more judicious with his public remarks. He could have accepted a plea deal. He could have shown up to court. Even at the very end, he could have turned himself into police, noted Sen. Clarence Lam, another Democratic lawmaker who helped lead the investigation.
“He not only doubled down, he tripled down, quadrupled down and quintupled down,” Lam said.
The result was a loss of life and questions that will never be answered.
“He was certainly defiant from the beginning all the way to his final seconds,” Lam said. “It was unfortunate he was not willing to own up to what occurred and face the charges in a court of law.”
Baltimore Banner reporters Justin Fenton and Tim Prudente contributed to this article.