May 2, 2019; The Root
As has previously been reported in NPQ and extensively covered in the Baltimore Sun, among other news sources, Baltimore’s Mayor Catherine Pugh (D) has been under scrutiny for her apparent self-dealing with partners engaged in business with Baltimore, as well as the state of Maryland. These deals related to sales of a children’s book, Healthy Holly, written by Pugh, and sold to various entities, including the University of Maryland Medical System and Kaiser Permanente, to the tune of $800,000. After much public criticism, Pugh has announced her resignation this week, in the form of a statement read by her attorney, Steven D. Silverman. In the statement, Pugh professed that she was “sorry for the harm [she has caused] to the image of the city of Baltimore and the credibility of the office of the mayor…Baltimore deserves a mayor that can move our great city forward.”
Pugh had been on a leave of absence since April 1st due to health reasons relating to pneumonia, and was in fact hospitalized for five days in March. Bernard C. “Jack” Young, City Council President, became acting mayor during this time, and will now become the mayor. The mayor’s office issued a statement in early April, claiming that Pugh would return to her post after recovering from pneumonia. But it is clear that Pugh and the mayor’s office have been feeling major pressure from all of the scandals that seem to be circulating around Pugh, particularly after last week, when the FBI raided Pugh’s homes and City Hall offices and took out boxes of material. The IRS was also part of the morning raid, entering Pugh’s homes, City Hall office, and the Maryland Center for Adult Training, where Pugh had been chairwoman of the board. It also seems that Pugh’s legal team was also visited by federal agents, seeking any of Pugh’s “original financial records,” according to Silverman. Additionally, Maryland’s Office of State Prosecutor and Baltimore’s ethics board have both begun investigating any potential violation of laws or ethics rules.
Pugh is the second Baltimore mayor in the past decade to leave office amidst accusations of corruption, and the twelfth mayor to resign. Portraits of Pugh in City Hall have already been removed, according to city solicitor and former judge Andre Davis. Davis recounts his impressions of Pugh just 18 months ago when he became City Solicitor, of which he said he “saw a woman, a politician, an elected official who was absolutely dedicated to its people.” Pugh was elected in 2016, on the heels of Freddie Gray’s death in police custody, the ensuing protests, and former mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake dropping her bid for re-election.
In response to the initial allegations against Pugh, Maryland Governor Larry Hogan, a Republican, called for a criminal investigation into these business deals, claiming on Twitter that he directed the Maryland prosecutor’s office to investigate Pugh and that she had “lost the public trust.” Last week, Hogan demanded Pugh resign amidst the scandal. Hogan is in an interesting position, as he is the first Republican governor in Maryland to win re-election in over 50 years. He has made comments that indicate he may be interested in posing a challenge to Trump in the 2020 Republican primary.
In any case, Pugh’s resignation amidst scandal is disappointing, but not surprising, considering the city’s history. The region has a deep history of corruption among its public officials and the Baltimore City Police Force. One of the more famous examples of corruption comes from nearby Baltimore County where Spiro Agnew served as executive from 1962 to 1966. Agnew went on to be Governor of Maryland from 1967–1969, and of course, infamously, Vice President in President Richard Nixon’s administration, until he was forced to resign in 1973. As a Maryland official, Agnew had a history of taking bribes, for which he was never prosecuted; rather he pleaded no contest to tax evasion charges, and ultimately stepped down from the Vice Presidency.
It is fair to say that Pugh made mistakes, and perhaps resignation was really the only alternative in response to public outcry. But what about the companies that took part in these pay-for-play schemes? How should they atone for their own willingness to engage in corrupt practices? In addition to this concern, and as has been reported in NPQ previously, there were several other members of the Board of University of Maryland Medical System that engaged in self-dealing. Since then, two more of these individuals, both John W. Dillon and Robert L. Pevenstein, have resigned from the UMMS Board. But one could argue there has not been nearly the press coverage focused on them, nor have the FBI or IRS raided their offices and/or personal homes. It may be that because they were not in elected positions, like Pugh was, accountability is more difficult to establish, since mayors are imbued with the responsibility of working for taxpayers. At the same time, however, there are many recent examples of other public officials with major scandals, including the ongoing saga of President Trump. These individuals have not faced the severity of repercussions that Pugh has.
It is difficult not to wonder if race plays an issue in this discrepancy, particularly since currently, of the largest 307 cities in the United States, only 13, or four percent, are governed by Black women. This issue was also felt sharply in light of a Baltimore anchorwoman’s recent racist comments on air about “female, African American mayors” in the city and if “a different kind of leadership is needed to move Baltimore City forward?” The swiftness of response in the past few weeks has been such a contrast to the slow-moving nature of our current political landscape that it was almost jarring.—Kristen Munnelly