Hauling out boxes of “Healthy Holly” books and documents, dozens of federal law enforcement agents Thursday struck homes, businesses and government buildings across Baltimore as an investigation into Mayor Catherine Pugh’s business dealings widened.
FBI agents and IRS officials executed search warrants at her City Hall office, Pugh’s two houses, and offices of the mayor’s allies, as the growing scandal consumed the city’s attention, generated national headlines and provoked fresh calls for the embattled Democratic mayor’s resignation.
“This is too much for our city,” Democratic City Councilman Zeke Cohen said. “It puts all of us under a tremendous strain, and again it is not fair either to the people that live here, or the people that work here.”
Dave Fitz, an FBI spokesman, confirmed that agents from the Baltimore FBI office and the Washington IRS office searched at least six addresses. The U.S. attorney’s office confirmed the location of a seventh search. The actions were the first confirmation that federal authorities, as well as state officials, were investigating the mayor’s activities.
Pugh remained inside her Ashburton home during the raids, a police source confirmed. Pugh, 69, did not respond to messages seeking comment.
Shortly after the raids began, Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan called on Pugh, who has taken a paid leave of absence as mayor, to resign. The Republican governor had asked the Maryland Office of the State Prosecutor on April 1 to investigate Pugh’s sales of her self-published “Healthy Holly” children’s book series to the University of Maryland Medical System while she was on its unpaid board of directors.
“Today, agents for the FBI and the IRS executed search warrants at the mayor’s homes and offices,” Hogan said. “Now, more than ever, Baltimore city needs strong and responsible leadership. Mayor Pugh has lost the public trust. She is clearly not fit to lead. For the good of the city, Mayor Pugh must resign.”
Under the city charter, there’s no way to remove Pugh from office unless she’s convicted of a crime.
After visiting Pugh at her home Thursday afternoon, her attorney, Steven Silverman, said she remains in poor health and is not “lucid” enough to decide whether to resign.
Asked whether he would advise the mayor to resign, Silverman said the decision was hers.
“All I do is give options,” he said. “There are several options available to her. That’ll be up to her.”
Earlier in the day, federal agents with a subpoena seized documents from Silverman’s downtown law office.
“We will continue to vigorously defend the mayor, who is entitled the presumption of innocence,” he said in a statement.
City historians said the raid at City Hall appeared to be unprecedented in Baltimore’s annals.
The medical system also confirmed Thursday that federal prosecutors had sent it a subpoena.
“The University of Maryland Medical System has received a grand jury witness subpoena today from the U.S. attorney’s office for the district of Maryland seeking documents and information from UMMS in order to conduct their investigation of Mayor Pugh. We are fully cooperating with the investigative process,” said Michael Schwartzberg, a spokesman for the hospital network, in an email.
Federal agents also visited the Maryland Center for Adult Training, a nonprofit job training program Pugh once led. It has listed online as board members three of Pugh’s mayoral office staffers — Gary Brown Jr., Poetri Deal and Afra Vance-White — who were fired this week by acting Mayor Bernard C. “Jack” Young.
Fitz said the FBI executed warrants at Brown’s home, too.
Silverman said in his statement that federal agents served a “limited subpoena” at the law firm of Silverman Thompson Slutkin & White “for original financial records belonging to Mayor Catherine Pugh.”
He said the firm had the documents as part of its representation of Pugh during the investigation of her self-published “Healthy Holly” children’s books, which the mayor sold to companies with business before the city and to the medical system.
“The agents also did not seek or obtain any attorney-client privileged communications with the mayor, or any other information or documents from the firm or its clients,” Silverman said.
Cohen, Eric Costello and Brandon Scott, all Democratic councilmen, reiterated their call for Pugh to resign Thursday. The entire City Council, as well as Baltimore lawmakers in the House of Delegates and the Greater Baltimore Committee, a business and civic group, also are seeking her resignation.
Lester Davis, a spokesman for Young, said Young didn’t know about the searches in advance. He also said Young did not know if the three aides were under investigation.
As Young, a Democrat, left City Hall at midmorning, he said briefly: “The city is moving forward. I’m not ducking anybody. I’m just letting you know I was unaware and all I’m doing is keeping the city moving forward.”
City Solicitor Andre Davis said the search at City Hall was in the mayor’s office on the second floor. Davis said he received an inventory of what agents seized, but doesn’t intend to release it publicly for now because that could harm the investigation. He said a search warrant affidavit, which would lay out the reason for the City Hall search, is under seal.
Citing health reasons, Pugh announced April 1 she was taking leave amid the growing scandal over the book sales. The Sun reported last month that Pugh was paid $500,000 by the medical system for 100,000 of the books to distribute to schoolchildren, as part of a no-bid arrangement.
Health provider Kaiser Permanente later acknowledged it paid Pugh more than $100,000 to buy about 20,000 copies of her books during a period when the company was seeking a lucrative contract to provide health insurance to city employees. Others with business before the city, including Columbia businessman J.P. Grant, also wrote checks for the book.
In all, Pugh's Healthy Holly LLC took in at least $800,000 from local entities since 2011, The Sun has reported.
Pugh bought her current home in the 3400 block of Ellamont Road for $117,500 just days after being sworn in as mayor in December 2016. Property records showed she purchased it without using a mortgage. She began renovating it in early 2017, but has repeatedly run afoul of city housing regulations regarding permits, historic preservation and fire codes.
Before her move, Pugh lived nearby on Dennlyn Road, where she bought a home in 1998.
As federal agents raided her houses, carrying out boxes labeled with titles in the “Healthy Holly” series, neighbors gathered on the sidewalk with reporters and photographers. Devin Lewis, 32, said he last saw Pugh about two weeks ago outside the Ellamont house.
“It’s more a shock than anything else,” Lewis said.
At the job training center, agents spent several hours inside before loading boxes of potential evidence into SUVs. A handwritten sign on door to the building said, “MCAT CLOSED TODAY.” Dressed in purple scrub pants and black tops, more than a dozen students in the center’s certified nursing assistant, geriatric nursing assistant and medical technician programs were surprised by the closure.
Keith Timmons, Pugh's former campaign treasurer, said law enforcement officials searched his office on Light Street “looking for Healthy Holly material." Timmons said in a phone interview that he didn't know what agency the officials were from, but a spokeswoman for the U.S. attorney’s office confirmed the address was one of those authorities searched Thursday.
Timmons signed the incorporation papers creating Pugh's Healthy Holly LLC. And the office address listed for him in Healthy Holly LLC's state business records appears in some editions of the Healthy Holly books.
Timmons has been Young's campaign treasurer since 2005, according to state records. Young said there was no connection between Timmons’ work as his treasurer and the Healthy Holly company.
“He will continue to be my treasurer,” Young said.
At Brown’s address in the Cecil apartments on Eutaw Street, two supervisors overseeing construction work confirmed that multiple FBI agents raided a unit in the building. The supervisors, who declined to give their names, said three men wearing FBI jackets and one man in a suit showed up with warrants about 7:30 a.m. Thursday. They declined to say whose apartment was raided, but the building is the listed address of Brown.
In 2017, Brown pleaded guilty to a campaign finance charge after the state prosecutor’s office found he used the bank accounts of some of his relatives to donate $18,000 to Pugh’s 2016 mayoral campaign. He received probation before judgement. Pugh stood by Brown after his prosecution, calling him a “good employee” and letting him keep his job at City Hall.
Pugh’s attorney has said she has remained on paid leave because she is still recovering from a case of pneumonia. She continues to receive her $185,000 annual salary.
Young has placed three other Pugh aides on paid leave, including her chief of staff.
Thursday was not the first time a Baltimore mayor’s house has been raided by investigators. In 2008, state prosecutors and police searched the home of then-Mayor Sheila Dixon. The Democrat became the first Baltimore mayor to face criminal charges, was convicted and resigned.
Federal investigators have searched other big City Halls in recent years, including Los Angeles in 2018 and Philadelphia in 2016. In those corruption cases, they were seeking materials from the offices of City Council members.
Baltimore Sun reporters Jessica Anderson, Jeff Barker, Liz Bowie, Colin Campbell, Jacques Kelly, Sarah Meehan, Ulysses Muñoz, Tim Prudente, Sameer Rao, Kevin Rector and Talia Richman contributed to this article.