As Baltimore struggles, latest scandal sucks away attention
BALTIMORE — Baltimore already faced daunting challenges: soaring violent crime, a thriving drug economy and poverty so intense that some derelict neighborhoods look like they were hit by a plague. Now, Mayor Catherine Pugh is embroiled in a strange scandal, sucking attention away from those core issues while embarrassing Maryland’s biggest city on a national scale.
The allegations surrounding the first-term mayor conjure up a bizarre world where no-contract financial deals intersect with children’s picture books, of all things. Since 2011, the Democrat has somehow received payments totaling at least $700,000 for tens of thousands of self-published 20-page books with titles like “Healthy Holly: Fruits Come in Colors Like the Rainbow.”
Her main customers for the hard-to-find paperbacks: a $4 billion medical network, on whose board she served, that paid her personal business half-a-million dollars for 100,000 copies; and a health care provider that bought “Healthy Holly” books after she became mayor, as that company was seeking a city contract.
It’s Baltimore’s latest chapter of murky politics and alleged corruption, of odd bedfellows and weird contradictions. For many locals, it’s yet another reminder that their hometown seems doomed to repeat cycles of tawdry mismanagement, reinforcing tales of homegrown sleaze ingrained in pop culture by the gritty TV drama “The Wire.”
“Baltimore’s insular politics, with its interlocked civic and political elite, and without clear divides among parties or factions, creates the conditions for scandals like this one,” said Daniel Schlozman, a political science professor at Johns Hopkins University.
For Pugh, an affable, image-conscious politician who was once the state Senate majority leader and ran a public relations firm, the stakes could not be higher. Allegations of blatant self-dealing have left her increasingly isolated and politically vulnerable. As a growing chorus presses for her resignation, her spokespeople say she’s retreated to her home on doctor’s orders, taking an “indefinite” leave of absence due to a pneumonia bout.
Yet at a rambling press conference last week, Pugh painted her “Healthy Holly” initiative as entirely well-intentioned, while calling her whopping $500,000 book deal with the University of Maryland Medical System a “regrettable mistake.” She held up baby bibs and onesies emblazoned with words like “play” and “crawl” that she said were part of a “Healthy Holly” lifestyle message.
As public trust appears to erode with each new revelation, many political observers wonder if an indictment will come from an investigation into Pugh’s financial dealings as an elected official. On Monday, Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan formally asked for a criminal investigation into Pugh’s activities by the State Prosecutor’s Office, which investigates public corruption.
Pugh’s lawyer, Steven Silverman, said she looks forward to cooperating with the state prosecutor’s investigation and will provide “as much information as possible to put this matter to rest.”
While the accusations raise clouds over Baltimore’s mayor, Pugh hasn’t been indicted for anything and it’s far from clear how long the criminal investigation will take. Pugh might even try forging ahead, at least through 2020 when her term expires, but many political analysts believe she would never be able to wield power effectively.
It wasn’t supposed to be this way. Pugh came to office contrasting her clean image with her main opponent, ex-mayor Sheila Dixon who was forced to depart office in 2010 as part of a plea deal for misappropriating about $500 in gift cards meant for needy families.
But as Baltimore Sun columnist Dan Rodricks wrote of Pugh in a Tuesday piece, it turns out “the woman who was elected because she did not come with baggage turns out to have had a matching set of luggage you’d need five bellhops to carry.”
Acknowledging that Baltimore faces more tough times due to the latest scandal, Democratic U.S. Rep. Elijah Cummings urged people to focus on the many Baltimoreans working hard to transform the city in ways big and small.
“I want everyone to remain focused on the fact that there are thousands of good people doing important work every single day to make Baltimore a better place to live and work,” said Cummings, a native of the city, in a statement touching on Pugh’s leave of absence.
That kind of pep talk is recurrent in Baltimore, a city with a shrinking population and public officials who keep getting into trouble. Just last week, Pugh’s onetime police commissioner, Darryl De Sousa, was sentenced to 10 months in federal prison for tax fraud.
A crowning frustration preoccupies city leaders: Baltimore’s latest scandal is unfolding amid the overwhelming, unmet expectations of citizens in large swaths of the startlingly segregated city. There’s a failing school system, crumbling infrastructure, and a beleaguered police department under federal oversight.
Some members of Baltimore’s influential legislative delegation in Maryland’s capital are now describing Pugh’s scandal in almost existential terms.
“I hope that she’s doing some real soul searching,” said state Sen. Bill Ferguson, a Baltimore Democrat. “This is such a distraction from where we need to be and the issues that we should be focused on to really help rebuild a great American city, so now we’ve just got to pull it together and figure out what the future holds.”
Another city Democrat, Sen. Antonio Hayes, put it more bluntly: “It’s frustrating as hell.”