The Conduit Street Q&A is our opportunity to get closer to the policymakers and public leaders who affect Maryland and its counties. We’ll ask questions about the person, the policy, and the politics – and let their answers bring you valuable insights on the biggest issues of today and tomorrow.
This week, we catch up with Brian Frosh, Attorney General of the State of Maryland.
MACo: We’re so glad that you could take the time for this exchange. Surely, your transition from legislative leader to Attorney General has been abrupt and exciting. With nearly a year under your belt, what are the changes that have been most exciting to you, overall?
Frosh: Thanks for the opportunity to talk. Of course, the main change is that now, instead of being a lawmaker and a lawyer in a small firm, I’m the head of an agency with more than 450 lawyers, and more than 700 employees overall. It’s the largest public interest law firm in the state, and there are dozens of challenges every day. Each day we are tackling a variety of interesting and important issues, and I don’t have to round up 23 other votes in order to get something done.
Not only are we involved in every state issue, but we also have the opportunity to argue cases before the U.S. Supreme Court, and to weigh in on things like Volkswagen’s violations of emission standards, drilling off the Atlantic Coast, and President Obama’s Clean Power Plan. Every day is different, interesting and fun.
MACo: The weather is getting cold. Are you feeling an instinct to head back to Annapolis for the legislative session? After seven terms in the House and Senate, it seems like that would be imprinted deeply. Do you miss being in the middle of that environment?
Frosh: Every time I get on the Washington Beltway, my car heads to Annapolis by itself. I loved being in the General Assembly. While I miss being in the middle of the fray, my current job is so gratifying and challenging that I really don’t look back. But I continue to visit, and I continue to talk to the presiding officers and other legislators. I have the opportunity to visit the State House all the time.
MACo: One bill that you did get deeply involved in last year was the Maryland False Claims Act. MACo joined in support of that bill, trying to weed out fraudulent practices costing taxpayers money. Congratulations on getting the bill through – how do you hope it will work?
Frosh: Thanks. This was an important bill and I’m glad it passed. We think the legislation itself will act as a deterrent to people who would consider cheating state and local government. We intend to be vigorous in cracking down on those who try to take advantage of taxpayers. With this law, we will evaluate lawsuits brought by whistleblowers who know about wrongdoing. They file the suit. My office evaluates it and decides if it should go forward. When we win, the whistleblowers can receive compensation, and there are triple damages which go to the government. We are dedicating staff resources in our office to false claims cases, and look forward to working closely with local governments to help fight fraud.
MACo: You’ve been in the headlines talking about the Health Exchange. Can you give us the latest on the issues with the state’s former vendors?
Frosh: We are pleased that we were able to get a $45 million settlement with Noridian Healthcare Solutions. We are working on final approval with out of state regulators, and on negotiations with the federal government on how to divide the settlement. What I can say is we continue to investigate vendors and will continue to pursue others who were responsible for the fact that the health benefit exchange failed to perform as promised. We recently alerted General Assembly leaders that, to quote from a letter, our investigation revealed that the vendors’ misstatements about their software and the vendors’ poor performance under the contract were the actual and proximate cause of the system’s failed launch.
MACo: It was in the papers recently that you have weighed in on federal climate plans. What is your relationship with the Governor and the Department of the Environment on things like this? What will Maryland’s involvement look like?
Frosh: We’ve had a very good working relationship with the governor and the Department of the Environment, and we expect that to continue. The governor and I do not agree on every issue, but we will work cooperatively and collaboratively to insure that people in our state have clean water to drink and clean air to breathe. I was proud to have served on the Governor’s Global Climate Change commission and supported legislation that requires Maryland’s power plants to reduce their carbon emissions. Other states need to do their share, and I think the President’s Clean Power Plan will require other states to share the burden and reduce carbon emissions. So we are now part of legal action – along with every other state in the Northeast and Mid-Atlantic Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative – to support fight the challenge to EPA rules that reduce carbon emissions from power plants nationwide.
MACo: So, a lot of people are aware that the Attorney General is the top lawyer for the State, but probably not all the things that the office does for Marylanders. Let’s explore that a little. A big part of your job is consumer protection, right?
Frosh: That’s right. We have a very active Consumer Protection Division. We take complaints from individuals who feel they were wronged or cheated in their purchases. In the last fiscal year, we helped about 9,000 Marylanders reclaim about $12 million they were owed. Our Consumer Protection Division also takes part in legal actions. We shut down scam cancer charities that were collecting millions by using names like the Cancer Fund and the Breast Cancer Fund, taking money from unwitting donors and spending it on trips, meals and a lavish lifestyle for the founders. We halted Chase credit card debt collection efforts for 8,000 Marylanders who were being asked to pay money they didn’t owe, because of mistakes from the bank. We try to stay vigilant to protect consumers.
MACo: And consumers of health insurance seem to have an especially tricky task. How do you all serve Marylanders there?
Frosh: We have a Health Education and Advocacy Unit that helps patients who have insurance billing disputes. It can be really tough to navigate this system, so our staff is here to help patients. If you call 410- 528-1840 or email email@example.com you can file a complaint and get the process started.
MACo: At the MML conference a few weeks ago, you talked about identity theft. Your office has a lead role looking at cyber security, too. What could we expect there?
Frosh: Last year, the General Assembly created the Maryland Cybersecurity Council, and put the Attorney General in charge. So we put together the council, which has cybersecurity leaders from State and Federal government, private industry and academia. The mission is to assess and improve Maryland’s cybersecurity posture. Cybersecurity is critical at both the micro level, and the macro level. On a small scale – but really it’s not so small – data breaches and data thefts can wreak havoc on our lives. If your identity is stolen, it could be years before you find out. And on the macro level, we need to be vigilant that we are prepared and secure so that hackers and crooks and terrorists and our enemies don’t use cyberspace to gain access to our transportation system, our electrical system, our water and sewer systems, our government. We are so dependent on the internet and digital devices for our daily lives. We need to make sure we recognize, evaluate and prepare for as many threats as possible. We need you to help keep Maryland on the leading edge of cybersecurity. Maryland is home to US Cybercommand at Fort Meade, to the NSA, to the Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Lab. There are brilliant people coming out of those institutions, and places like College Park and UMBC and Hopkins, building companies, devoting their careers to cybersecurity. The biggest players in the field are locating here. We can’t be the leader in cybersecurity and have our state government and public institutions lag behind. It makes no sense. The Council will be issuing its first report in the middle of the summer.
MACo: At MACo’s conference, we built a deep focus on public safety issues. One area that your office plays a role in is “profiling” by law enforcement agencies. What does the AG do here, and how do you work with local police and sheriffs?
Frosh: Police have incredibly difficult jobs. They put themselves in harm’s way, every day. When we call them for help, they are the people running toward danger, when our instinct would be to run away. And they get it right, far more often than not. But despite all they do for us, there is, too much mistrust of how they go about their work. We must take real steps to help police regain the trust of the communities they serve. That’s why in August, Maryland became the first state in the country to issue a Guidance Memorandum that addresses Discriminatory Profiling by law enforcement in the state of Maryland. It creates a standard for how law enforcement operates in Maryland.
It says that when conducting routine police activity – like patrols, and traffic stops and neighborhood beat work, unconnected from an investigation of a specific crime — law enforcement may not consider race, ethnicity, gender, national origin, religion, sexual orientation, disability or gender identity to any degree. Period. So now what we are doing is reaching out to every police department in the state to check on how they are adopting this into their general orders, and we are also providing training for any department that wants it.
MACo: Thank you so much for the updates, and we look forward to seeing you around Annapolis and prominently, as always, at our MACo events.