Baltimore won't have Mayor Pugh to kick around anymore

We were given hints that it might happen as recently as yesterday morning. I’ll confess I was a bit skeptical, given the pattern of abuse, denial, and obfuscation we’d seen, but at roughly 3:30 in the afternoon, Baltimore (ex) Mayor Catherine Pugh’s attorney stood before the press and made it official. Pugh was resigning as Charm City’s mayor, effective immediately. There was no specific mention of the ongoing BookGate scandal, but she did offer up an apology for the toxic effect she’s had on the city, in a letter read by her lawyer. (NPR)

After weeks of growing pleas for her to step down, Baltimore Mayor Catherine Pugh has resigned, her attorney said Thursday.

“I am sorry for the harm that I have caused to the image of the city of Baltimore and the credibility of the office of the mayor,” she said in a letter read by her lawyer Steve Silverman.

“Baltimore deserves a mayor who can move our great city forward,” the statement continued. Pugh, who has been suffering from health issues, did not appear at the news conference with her attorney.

Well, that took long enough, but at least this phase of the process is over. The acting mayor, City Council President Jack Young, has already said he has no interest in running for the job (and who could blame him given the current state of affairs), but he’ll likely be stuck with it until the city can put together a new election.

As I was pointing out on Twitter yesterday, we really can’t give enough credit to a team of reporters at the Baltimore Sun. Without the extensive efforts they poured into investigative journalism at the local level, we might never have learned of this story. They uncovered a mountain of grifting taking place not just by Catherine Pugh, but by a large number of members of the board of directors at the University of Maryland Medical System (UMMS). Most of those others have long since either resigned or been forced out and the investigations are ongoing.

Pugh has become another major embarrassment for Baltimore, but sadly, they’ve likely become used to it by now. She is the third mayor in a row to depart the office under less than optimal circumstances (to put it mildly). The last mostly scandal-free mayor they had was Martin O’Malley, who resigned in 2007 after being elected Governor. He was succeeded by Sheila Dixon, who resigned in 2010 after being convicted of embezzlement. She was followed by Stephanie Rawlings-Blake, who managed to avoid any criminal indictments, but declined to run for reelection in 2016 after her mishandling of the Freddie Gray riots left parts of her city in smoking ruins. That led to the ascension of Pugh, which brings us to the sad display we witnessed yesterday.

With all that said, the next question is where we go from here. While it’s true that both the FBI and the IRS conducted massive, daytime raids of Pugh’s home and public offices, no charges have been filed as of yet. Does she simply get to waltz away into the sunset with nearly a million dollars in “book sales?” The authorities are refusing to comment on an ongoing investigation, so perhaps there are still indictments to come. If not, Catherine Pugh will clearly have pulled one over on her city and its citizens.

The last thing I would note is the rather gentle tone that much of the media is taking with this story. For example, notice how CNN described Pugh’s troubles as a “scandal over sales of a children’s book she authored.”

To read that (and much of the NPR coverage linked above), you could almost think that this was just some sort of bookkeeping error or dispute over receipts for legitimate sales. It was nothing of the kind. This was grifting of the highest magnitude. It was a blatant self-dealing scheme of the sort that’s already banned under the law in most places. Yet somehow, Baltimore never got around to passing laws forbidding the practice until now. And in many cases that we’ve learned of, it’s not even accurate to call the activities “book sales” because, in at least some cases, there clearly weren’t any books to begin with. People doing business with the city and needing Pugh’s approval were simply writing her checks for books that were apparently never even printed.

I’ll get off my high horse now. Covering this story has been a wild ride and it’s probably (or at least hopefully) not done yet. But corruption has been exposed through diligent work by the press and one of the main perpetrators has been forced out of office. It almost gives you hope for the future of the media and good government.