In the wake of a wide-reaching scandal tied to her children’s book series, Catherine Pugh is officially stepping down as mayor of Baltimore.
Pugh’s attorney, Steven Silverman, announced the mayor’s resignation Thursday afternoon at a press conference at the 25th-floor offices of his law firm, Silverman, Thompson, Slutkin and White. Pugh was not present, and Silverman took no questions after reading a statement from Pugh addressed to the “citizens of Baltimore” and Mayor Ex Officio Bernard C. “Jack” Young. The press conference lasted less than two minutes.
“I would like to thank you for allowing me to serve as the 50th mayor,” Pugh’s address began. “It has been an honor and a privilege. Today, I am submitting my written resignation to the Baltimore City Council. 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. Baltimore deserves a mayor who can move our great city forward.
“I want to thank all of our department heads and staff who work hard everyday to improve the quality of life for all who live, work and visit our city. I also thank Jack Young, the president of the city council, for his steadfast leadership in my absence. I wish you well in your new role as mayor of Baltimore city.”
Silverman’s staff distributed a copy of Pugh’s official resignation letter to Young. Just before reading her statement aloud, he called today “a sad day for Mayor Pugh and a sad day for the city of Baltimore.”
copy of official resignation letter pic.twitter.com/VCmOvLaVYH
— Ethan McLeod (@EMcLeod_BFB) May 2, 2019
Young is now the 51st mayor of Baltimore. In a statement immediately after the press conference, he said Pugh’s resignation is “in the best interest of the City of Baltimore.
“Although I understand that this ordeal has caused real pain for many Baltimoreans, I promise that we will emerge from it more committed than ever to building a stronger Baltimore,” Young said. “Charm City is wonderful and is full of resilient people who are working hard every day to move our City forward. You all deserve recognition, and I will spend my time as mayor working alongside you.”
The writing was on the wall for the official announcement, with The Sun reporting Wednesday that City Solicitor Andre Davis had already drafted her resignation letter, and The Afro getting the scoop about her resignation after the paper’s publisher helped lead a prayer circle at her house last night.
Her resignation comes amid city and state investigations into Pugh’s “Healthy Holly” children’s book scandal and previous spending board votes, and one week after agents from the FBI and IRS last week raided Pugh’s two homes, her offices at City Hall, a nonprofit she previously ran and the apartment of a former aide. Agents also served subpoenas at her attorney’s office downtown and the University of Maryland Medical System.
Pugh had been out on paid leave since April 1, which Silverman said stemmed for her being in poor health from a bout of pneumonia that began in late March, but began after reports brought the total of known payments from politically connected entities for Pugh’s “Healthy Holly” books to nearly $800,000.
She stepped away several weeks after The Sun broke that she had taken $500,000 in a series of payments for 100,000 copies of her books from the University of Maryland Medical System, on whose board she had served as an unpaid board member since 2001. State Sen. Jill Carter (D-41st District) had flagged the ethically questionable arrangement by sponsoring legislation to ban UMMS board members from doing business with the medical system; in addition to Pugh, eight other board members had arranged for side deals with the organization.
Pugh had been serving as a state senator at the time of the payments, and legislative records indicate she sponsored bills to help hospitals, including by making it more difficult for patients or their families to sue hospitals for large judgments in malpractice claims.
Initially, Pugh called media probes into her “Healthy Holly” dealings a “witch hunt” and said she had reported all income from the book business on her taxes. The mayor also updated seven years worth of financial disclosure forms with the state ethics commission after The Sun first reported the deal, resigned from her post with UMMS and promised to return the final payment of $100,000 she received from the hospital system.
At a press conference on March 28, Pugh apologized for the entire scandal, saying, “I am deeply sorry for any lack of confidence or disappointment which this initiative may have caused among Baltimore City residents, friends and colleagues. In hindsight, this arrangement with the University of Maryland Medical System was a regrettable mistake.”
At the same presser, Pugh dove into the roots of her children’s book series idea—it was all intended to help promote healthy lifestyles for children, she said—and in a surprise twist, shared a clothing and accessories line she developed to pair with the books. She also presented manifests for the “Healthy Holly” shipments; it turned out 40,000 of them were never even produced, according to her Winnipeg-based based printer. (Thousands more remain unaccounted for, or were found sitting in a Baltimore City Public Schools warehouse.)
While Pugh stayed in office, days later reports uncovered that she also took additional payments. More than $100,000 came from Kaiser Permanente for 20,000 copies of her books as the company was seeking a $48 million city contract to insure Baltimore’s municipal employees. Pugh later helped approve the contract as a member of the Board of Estimates instead of recusing herself.
And more came from Associated Black Charities, which collected around $90,000 for 10,000 book copies and paid most of it to Pugh’s Healthy Holly LLC, and from businessman J.P. Grant, who paid $100,000 for a single copy and whose company, Grant Capital Management, has done business with the city. Pugh later voted to approve a deal for Associated Black Charities to administer the city’s $12 million Youth Fund. Grant was a partner in a firm that won a sizable conduit construction contract with the city, and that helped renovate Pugh’s house.
The Johns Hopkins Health System also stepped forward to say Pugh had asked a high-level employee to purchase copies of her books when she was a state senator, but that they declined.
The governor, the entire city council, Baltimore’s House delegation and the influential Greater Baltimore Committee, whose board includes a number of Pugh allies, called for the mayor to resign in the best interests of the city. City council members have also introduced legislation—some of it planned well before the scandal, such as proposed whistleblower protections or the creation of a city manager position—to create a path to remove the mayor and give more power to the council within what’s long been a strong-mayor framework in Baltimore.
A couple of those bill sponsors today celebrated Pugh’s departure from the mayor’s office as a positive. Councilman Brandon Scott (2nd District) issued a statement today saying it’s “a day of relief and accountability for Baltimore. Now the city can move forward with tackling the vast challenges facing Baltimore including improving our schools and reducing crime.”
Councilman Bill Henry (4th District) said the past seven weeks since the scandal broke “have been extremely trying for Baltimore City,” and that Pugh’s “health and legal problems have added unnecessary complications to the work of local government. Those complications have been a distraction and that distraction has had a negative impact on the citizens we serve.”
Sharon Green Middleton, who’s been filling in as council president for Young, offered a warmer take for Pugh, wishing her well and saying she “has served the city and we are better because of that service.”
“Whether it is her fight for education dollars, housing, and economic development in long-neglected neighborhoods and her focus on violence reduction in our communities, now the work must continue.”
Gov. Larry Hogan, who ordered the state prosecutor to investigate the scandal at the beginning of April, said in a statement, “This was the right decision, as it was clear the mayor could no longer lead effectively. The federal and state investigations must and will continue to uncover the facts. Baltimore City can now begin to move forward. The state pledges its full support to incoming Mayor Jack Young and to city leaders during this time of transition.”
Reporters sat with bated breath this week awaiting a resignation announcement from Pugh, after Silverman said last week that an announcement could come as soon as Tuesday, but that she wasn’t “lucid” enough at the time to make a decision.
Voters overwhelmingly elected Pugh as mayor in 2016 after she emerged from a 29-candidate primary field. She ran on a platform that included goals to reduce crime, create more jobs with public-private partnerships, establish new job-training programs, expand activities to city youth away from violence, raise the minimum wage to $15 an hour and ramp up penalties for illegal gun possession.
Her tenure coincided with spikes in violence and instability at the top ranks of the Baltimore Police Department and ongoing population decline. It’s also included a drop in homicides in 2018, the creation of a program offering free community college for city students, a path to bringing additional transit options and Complete Streets to Baltimore and a broad investment plan for the city’s underserved neighborhoods, among other successes.
Before being elected mayor, Pugh served as senator for the 40th District from 2007 to 2016, after serving on the Baltimore City Council from 1999 to 2004 and being appointed to an open delegate seat by Gov. Robert Ehrlich in 2005.
A Philadelphia native, she came to Baltimore after graduating high school in 1967 to attend Morgan State University, where she earned a bachelor’s degree and a Master’s in Business Administration and was a cheerleader and member of Delta Sigma Theta.
She went on to work in banking first, landing a job with the Equitable Trust Bank, and then for the Council for Equal Business Opportunity. She’s also worked in media, operating a newspaper, running her own public relations firm, hosting her own talk show and serving as an independent editor for The Baltimore Sun. She also served as dean of Strayer Business College (now Strayer University) in Baltimore for a stint.
Pugh ran for city council president in 2004 but lost to Sheila Dixon, who went on to serve as mayor until she resigned from office in 2010 after being convicted of embezzlement. Pugh lost a mayoral bid to Stephanie Rawlings-Blake in 2011 before going on to edge out Dixon in the primary and ultimately win the general election in 2016.
This story has been updated with comment from local officials, and to reflect that Pugh said she would return the final payment of $100,000 that she received from UMMS.
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