By Ray Sanchez, CNN
To those who knew former Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan‘s one-time chief of staff, Roy McGrath was fastidious to a fault. He was task-oriented and straight-laced, a career public servant and political operator who was quirky and deeply concerned about his image.
What McGrath did not seem to be, they said, was a criminal mastermind — which made his fall from grace all the more remarkable, a human and political tragedy that leaves a trail of questions that may never be answered.
McGrath, 53, faced charges of wire fraud, embezzlement and falsifying documents. He died in a hospital after a nationwide, three-week manhunt ended on April 3 in a confrontation with FBI agents near a Sonic Drive-In on the outskirts of Knoxville, Tennessee, according to McGrath’s attorney.
The FBI in a statement to CNN acknowledged McGrath’s death in a “shooting incident involving an FBI special agent” and said a review was underway.
“He was not a crook,” said Len Foxwell, a Maryland Democratic strategist who got to know McGrath over the years. “He was a career government relations official, political operative and government worker who got caught up in a situation that spiraled out of control.”
‘He just kept digging a deeper hole’
McGrath, a top aide to Hogan for a few months during the summer of 2020, faced state and federal charges related to an alleged scheme to bilk Maryland out of more than $276,000.
The six-figure sum mostly represented a severance package from one state job McGrath had before taking another state job as Hogan’s chief of staff, according to prosecutors who say McGrath lied about Hogan’s awareness and approval of the payment.
Hogan, who announced last month that he would not seek the 2024 Republican presidential nomination, denied agreeing to the severance, according to federal prosecutors. Prior to his work as Hogan’s chief of staff McGrath had served as executive director of the quasi-governmental Maryland Environmental Service (MES) for more than three years.
McGrath had pleaded not guilty to all charges and was released on bond, according to the US Marshals Service. The criminal charges were preceded by a Maryland legislative investigation which found potential financial fraud by McGrath, financial abuses by him and a “rogue hiring system” at the agency.
“It’s a shame. The guy lost his life ultimately over a year’s salary, basically, and a few other things,” said Dan Faoro, who worked with McGrath at a trade group for chain drugstores and later at MES.
“There were so many off-ramps for him. We all talked about this, but he wasn’t one to take anyone’s advice. He just kept digging a deeper hole.”
An arrest warrant was issued for McGrath — who had moved to Florida — on March 13 after he failed to appear for his federal trial in Baltimore.
A person familiar with the investigation told CNN that the April 3 confrontation with McGrath occurred near a Tennessee interstate exit. It came after the FBI had received a tip McGrath was in the area. FBI agents tracked his vehicle on the highway and attempted a traffic stop. It’s unclear why or for how long McGrath had been in the Knoxville area.
“I have been provided very little follow-up information regarding Roy’s death,” Joseph Murtha, an attorney for McGrath, said in a statement on April 6. “It is still uncertain as to whether Roy died from a self-inflicted gunshot wound, or if it occurred after an exchange of gunfire with the FBI.”
An autopsy was to be performed at the Knox County Medical Examiner’s office.
“The FBI reviews every shooting incident involving an FBI special agent,” the agency said. “The review will carefully examine the circumstances of the shooting, and collect all relevant evidence from the scene.”
Murtha in his statement called McGrath’s death “a tragic ending to three weeks of uncertainty.”
“I think it is important to stress that Roy never waivered [sic] about his innocence,” the statement said.
William Brennan, an attorney for McGrath’s wife, confirmed McGrath’s death at a Tennessee hospital after a “confrontation with the FBI” and said his client was “absolutely distraught.”
Neither attorney was able to provide other details about the circumstances surrounding the death.
“As one of my colleagues said to me, the guy didn’t do everything right but it wasn’t sort of a death penalty situation,” said Maryland State Del. Marc Korman, a Democrat who helped lead the legislative investigation of McGrath.
“But this is where it ended up.”
A hands-on manager
Born in Greece and raised in Maryland, McGrath got his start in politics in the early 1990s as chair of the Republican Party’s central committee in Charles County, according to the state government website. He graduated from the University of Maryland, College Park, in 1993, with degrees in government and politics, as well as economics.
Before completing college, McGrath worked on Hogan’s campaign committee during the ex-governor’s unsuccessful bid for Congress in 1992. He later served as the director for the campaign “Lawyers for Hogan” and led early voting and Election Day operations during Hogan’s successful 2014 gubernatorial campaign. McGrath served on the governor-elect’s transition team and as Hogan’s deputy chief of staff before moving to the MES, according to the state website.
Prior to his government work, McGrath spent 14 years at the National Association of Chain Drug Stores, a trade group where he held leadership positions running business development and conventions, said the state website and the legislative report on McGrath.
Faoro ran communications, marketing and production for the trade association. He described McGrath — during his time at the trade group — as a good communicator and hands-on manager who was personable and a regular at happy hours with colleagues in the bars of historic Old Town in Alexandria, Virginia.
“He was pretty well-liked,” said Faoro, who handled communications for both the trade group and, years later, the environmental service. “He was good at sort of putting things together and making things happen.”
Colleague noticed change in management style
In December 2016, after a year and a half in the governor’s mansion in Annapolis, Hogan named McGrath director of the MES, an independent agency responsible for environmental and public works projects, including the operation of state-owned sewage plants and waterways.
“He really treated the position like he was the head of a Fortune 500 company instead of the executive director of a quasi-governmental agency,” Korman said.
A legislative report on an investigation into McGrath’s tenure at MES accused him of personally hiring “loyal colleagues” to key positions in the agency, where they “were known as ‘untouchables'” within the organization and persuaded to make “sizable contributions” to Hogan’s campaign even though they resided outside the state of Maryland.
Additionally, the report said, McGrath accumulated nearly $170,000 in questionable expenses during his three and half years as director. In comparison, the report said, the expenses of McGrath’s two predecessors during their stints of more than 10 years each amounted to a fraction of his total spending. McGrath repeatedly invoked his Fifth Amendment right not to testify when questioned at legislative hearings.
A key witness at the hearings was the agency’s former deputy director, Beth Wojton. She raised questions about McGrath’s spending and testified that he was preoccupied with his image and rarely interacted with colleagues in person.
“He absolutely would not tolerate any criticism or negative feedback from staff,” Wojton testified, according to CNN affiliate WBAL. “It was not a very pleasant work environment.”
Wojton, who is no longer at MES, told CNN via email: “I am not interested in talking to anyone about this and I feel sorry that it ended as it did.”
Faoro said his boss’ management style had changed considerably in the public sector.
“I thought he was a little bit of a quirky guy,” Faoro said. “You know, friendly enough. He operated, I always thought, very ethically. Sometimes he was more concerned about how he would look versus how the organization would look.”
Faoro said McGrath intimately controlled MES messaging in news releases and on daily social media posts. He became less present at the office and some colleagues began to complain about negative interactions with him. McGrath was such a stickler for detail, Faoro said, that personal “thank you” cards from the desk of the director were never printed because he could not agree on minor things like fonts, color or the type of paper.
McGrath blamed ‘politically motivated bullies’
After the controversial severance payment was revealed in The Baltimore Sun in 2020, McGrath defiantly defended his actions.
“He could have acknowledged the problems right away when they emerged, before there was any legislative or legal action,” Korman said.
Faoro said of McGrath: “He was convinced of his righteousness.”
The legislative report cited a Facebook post in which McGrath said “politically motivated bullies” had “originated this twisted mess” as well as an interview and documents he said he gave to The Washington Post. McGrath provided the newspaper with what he said was a 2020 memo showing that the governor had approved his severance — a document Hogan’s spokesman at the time called a “complete fabrication.” Prosecutors later agreed the memo had been falsified.
Another document cited in the legislative report was an August 2020 text from Hogan to McGrath: “I know you did nothing wrong. … I will stand with you.” Hogan’s spokesman at the time confirmed the authenticity of the text but said it was sent before the former governor knew the full story behind the severance, according to the legislative report.
CNN has reached out to Hogan’s former and current spokesmen for comment. The former governor has not been accused of wrongdoing. Following McGrath’s death, Hogan said in a statement that he and his wife were “deeply saddened by this tragic situation.”
McGrath was indicted by a federal grand jury in October 2021 on charges that he had defrauded MES of a $233,647.23 severance payment by “falsely telling them that the Governor was aware of and approved the payment,” the Justice Department said.
The indictment also alleged that McGrath had directed MES funds to an art museum on which he was a member of the board of directors. He was also accused of defrauding MES to pay for a tuition expense of more than $14,000 and falsifying time sheets during two vacations, according to the indictment.
McGrath was initially charged with wire fraud and embezzlement from an organization receiving more than $10,000 in federal benefits. A superseding indictment returned in June 2022 also charged him with falsifying records. On the state level, he faced more than two dozen counts, including charges of felony theft, misconduct in office and violations of wiretapping law, according to the criminal information.
When he resigned from Hogan’s office in 2020 amid inquiries about the severance payout, McGrath blamed the “sad politics of personal destruction” and said he had stepped down to avoid “unnecessary distractions” to Hogan and his team. Hogan told reporters in November 2021 that McGrath was terminated after the governor’s office learned of the details.
Driven ‘to the brink of a break’
McGrath would have faced decades in prison if convicted of all the charges against him.
In mid-March, after he had failed to show up for his trial, the FBI and US Marshals Service each offered a reward of $10,000 for information leading to his arrest.
“I choose to believe that Roy was a classic midlevel manager throughout his career and he was eventually given more power and, honestly, access to more money than he could handle,” said Foxwell, the Democratic strategist.
“And he got in over his head. The power and money went to his head and he began to make mistakes that would compound on one another as time went on. I really don’t believe he was at his core a bad person. But you don’t have to be a bad person to make atrocious decisions and exercise terrible judgment.”
While McGrath was on the run, a pair of self-published e-books released on Amazon.com sought to tell his version of events, WBAL reported.
One book, “Betrayed: The True Story of Roy McGrath,” blamed the prosecution on the former governor.
David Weinman, a Hogan spokesman, responded to WBAL in a statement: “In this day and age, anyone can publish a ‘book’ and repeat bizarre and baseless accusations, including fugitives from justice who are facing multiple counts of fraud.”
“Having run communications for Roy and kind of knowing his writing style, he definitely had a heavy hand in writing those, if he didn’t write them all himself,” Faoro said. “There was some language in there that was not verbatim but nearly was what was in some of our press releases.”
Murtha, McGrath’s attorney, said he had no information on funeral arrangements for McGrath.
“He had already been publicly disgraced,” Foxwell said. “His name was splashed upon the front pages of newspapers for all the wrong reasons and he was facing the very real possibility, if not the likelihood, of losing his freedom for several years. So one can see how that would have driven him to the brink of a break.”
Still, Foxwell added, “If you had lined up two dozen people in Gov. Hogan’s administration and said, ‘One of these people is going to be charged with fraud, falsification of documents and other financially related crimes, be forced to stand trial, flee the state and ultimately die under mysterious circumstances,’ he would be the absolute last person one would suspect.”
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CNN’s Evan Perez, Mary Kay Mallonee, Dave Alsup and Shawna Mizelle contributed to this report.