Senators had sharp questions Monday night for members of the beleaguered University of Maryland Medical System board seeking reappointment after a self-dealing scandal that led to the resignation of high-profile members and the federal indictment of former Baltimore Mayor Catherine E. Pugh.
Three members of the board ― including the current chair and vice-chair ― are seeking reappointment to the panel, which is nearly entirely overhauled after Pugh’s “Healthy Holly” dealings and other contracts with board members came to light last year.
The three renominated members pledged to the Senate Executive Nominations Committee on Monday night that they had no knowledge of the contracts with board members as they evolved and were committed to improving governance and transparency within the system.
“It was completely unknown to the board,” James C. DiPaula Jr., the board’s chairman, said in response to a question about the system’s $500,000 in contracts for copies of Pugh’s “Healthy Holly” children’s books.
Nine former members of the board had financial interests in companies doing business with the medical system.
DiPaula, who has been on the panel since 2017, said the system previously had written documents to address conflicts of interest, but they weren’t used in practice. They will be in the future, he said.
“We had written documents that said no board member was to be paid unless it was approved by the board. But management did not bring that to the board,” said DiPaula, who was nominated for reappointment by Gov. Lawrence J. Hogan Jr. (R) in December and has been serving as the board’s chair since June. “So it’s important not only to have the right governance instruments, but also to review them and to have continuous education for board members and senior management.”
Legislation passed in Annapolis last year subjected the medical system to tighter rules regarding financial deals and ended the terms of all board members, though they could apply for reappointment.
The Executive Nominations Committee on Monday asked no questions of a majority of the appointees, and minor questions of several others.
The most extensive questioning was reserved primarily for returning members of the board.
“We are far more vigilant now and we are certainly doing all that we can to cooperate with the state and all of the persons who are trying to make sure there’s a change of the culture,” said Alexander Williams Jr., a retired federal judge and former Prince George’s County state’s attorney, who is the board’s vice-chairman.
A member of the board since 2015, Williams told the Senate committee that he had no knowledge of the troubling contracts as deals were struck.
“I can give you unequivocal assurance that I was totally unaware of that activity. I read about it probably at the time you read about it in The Sun,” Williams said. “I can assure you that nothing like that will ever come back.”
Alan Butler, CEO of Erickson Living, another board member seeking reappointment, said he was “quite disappointed” when he learned about the contracts, which he called “wrong on all levels.”
Louis M. Pope, who is seeking senate confirmation as a returning representative from the University System of Maryland Board of Regents, told the committee that under his watch, such deals would never happen again.
“The incidents that happened … were basically backroom deals … that were done without the knowledge of other board members,” he said.
Pope faced other questions as well. Sen. Clarence K. Lam (D-Howard) questioned him about giving more than the state’s $6,000 contribution limit to Hogan during the last election cycle. According to a state database, Pope is listed as contributing $8,000 to Hogan’s campaign between December 2015 and September 2018.
Pope explained that he bought four pairs of $1,000 tickets to Hogan events over the years for himself and his wife. He told Lam that he’d reached out to the Hogan campaign to correctly identify that a portion of the donations should be made in his wife’s name.
One new appointee to the board, Kathleen A. Birrane, also faced tough questions.
Lam asked Birrane about a dozen postings on social media dating back to 2016 that questioned whether transgender individuals should be able to use the restroom of their gender identity and included anti-abortion messages.
Lam asked Birrane whether her personal views might conflict with Maryland’s anti-discrimination laws.
Birrane, an attorney, said she didn’t know which posts Lam was referring to, but that her personal views would never influence her work on the board.
“As a member of the Maryland bar, my personal views would never enter into any decision that I make either on behalf of any client or with respect to any appointment or any issue,” Birrane said.
The posts about transgender bathrooms included messages about empathy for people experiencing gender-identity issues, but focused on concerns from women sexual assault victims.
At the meeting, Birrane said she has very strong feelings about the transgender community, though not in the way Lam might expect.
“I respect the dignity of each and every human being, including those members of my family who may not always be seen in a very traditional way. And there would never be a circumstance in which I would personally tolerate any form of discrimination,” Birrane said.
Lam said the posts were troubling because they could interfere with official decisions. After the meeting, he said he wanted to further contemplate Birrane’s responses before pressing the issue with committee members.
“We have a responsibility to ensure that the values that we uphold and the provisions that are in statute to protect against discrimination are properly applied to a system like UMMS,” Lam said.
The committee also received a brief update on changes at UMMS from Aaron Rabinowitz, special counsel for governance at the medical system.
Rabinowitz noted that the board has adopted a new conflict of interest policy and that key positions ― including chairman of the board ― will no longer be held by anyone who has any financial interest in the system, including through family members.
Lam, who is also Senate chairman of the Joint Audit and Evaluation Committee, asked Rabinowitz about allegations that system officials had hindered a legislative audit originally due in December.
An October letter from Maryland Legislative Auditor Gregory Hook to legislative leaders alleged that UMMS officials had failed to make documents and employees sought by auditors available in a timely fashion.
Rabinowitz and DiPaula said Monday they disagreed with that characterization and that the system worked to supply all relevant information, but the process was complicated due to mass departures of the highest-ranking officials and decentralized records-keeping.
“There was no intent to delay or hinder or obstruct,” Rabinowitz said.
Since the letter, he said, system leaders have met with Hook and come to an agreement about how information will be provided.
By Danielle Gaines