Inside Catherine Pugh's home in Ashburton: How the mayor of Baltimore gave up the fight and decided to resign

As April began, Baltimore Mayor Catherine Pugh, suffering from pneumonia and under intense stress due to a growing scandal, announced she would go on leave — but vowed to return to office once her health improved.

A month later, Pugh’s attorney held a 96-second news conference without her on Thursday. He announced her resignation and ended Pugh’s political career.

How did Pugh — known for her strong-willed insistence that her way is right — conclude that she needed to resign?

The Baltimore Sun interviewed friends and advisers to the 69-year-old Democrat who were in contact with her during her month-long leave of absence. They described a scene of anguish and emotional turmoil inside Pugh’s Ashburton home — where she largely stayed throughout the month — while family, supporters and her doctor visited.

They said she had trouble sleeping. They said she cried often and spoke in a quiet voice that was sometimes inaudible. At times resentful toward the news media for revelations about her sale of children’s books that brought about her downfall, Pugh oscillated between defiance and acceptance that she needed to step down, those close to her say.

“She was going back and forth” about whether to sign the letter of resignation that others had prepared for her, one close adviser to Pugh said.

As public pressure built, it was the FBI raid of her home on April 25 — and the seizure of her telephone — that helped underscore the need for her resignation, her supporters said.

Pugh signed a resignation letter, dated May 2 and drafted by City Solicitor Andre Davis, with a scrawled signature that appeared to trail off at the end.

Baltimore Mayor Pugh's scandal over 'Healthy Holly' books: full coverage »

During the ordeal, Pugh was at times not “lucid” enough to make decisions for herself, according to her attorney Steven Silverman. But Davis said Friday that Pugh was of sound mind when she signed her resignation.

The solicitor said it was the second resignation letter Silverman had presented to the mayor since she went on leave. The city’s law department had drafted a similar memo about two weeks earlier that she had declined to sign, Davis said.

But the one he gave to Silverman last Wednesday afternoon got a different response.

“He took the letter to her. She signed it,” Davis said. “This is not the first letter of resignation that Steve and the mayor have reviewed. Any suggestion that his lucidity statement from a week ago still applied is not true. She was lucid.”

Nevertheless, friends and advisers say Pugh struggled with the decision about whether to resign, seeking counsel from trusted friends and at times expressing disgust over what she saw as her unfair treatment by the news media, politicians and law enforcement.

Former state Sen. Joan Carter Conway, a Baltimore Democrat who is friends with Pugh, said she visited her twice shortly after she went on leave.

Both times, Conway said, Pugh was lying in bed in significant pain.

“She was lethargic,” Conway said. “I said, ‘She’s got to get up.’ She didn’t have any energy. You could see it in her eyes. She was under medication. She was kind of lifeless.”

During the visits, Conway said, the conversation turned to the mayor’s next steps.

“I said, ‘Maybe you need to consider resigning,’ I said, ‘Talk to your lawyer and see what he says,’ ” Conway recalled. When Conway returned for a follow-up visit days later, Pugh said she’d spoken with her attorney and decided not to resign because he “didn’t think that was a good idea.”

Conway said Pugh’s mind was shifting, not knowing exactly what to do.

“The first day she told me yes. The second day she told me no,” Conway said of her suggestion she resign.

Pugh, once seen as a candidate who could help restore ethics to a city with a history of political wrongdoing, was overtaken ultimately by the public outcry over hundreds of thousands of dollars in deals for her “Healthy Holly” books.

They were revealed in a series of articles in The Baltimore Sun that began March 13. Pugh’s story changed as she tried to account for the first deal to be disclosed, struck with the University of Maryland Medical System when she was a member of the hospital network’s board. She nonetheless called continued questioning by reporters a “witch hunt.”

Then, after being hospitalized for pneumonia, Pugh apologized for the UMMS sales at a halting, disjointed March 28 news conference at City Hall. But she also disclosed that some 40,000 books that UMMS had paid her $200,000 for were never produced.

Conway said she reached out to Pugh after seeing the news conference, which she felt was handled terribly.

“I went there because she was my friend and I knew she was sick,” Conway said. “Who the hell let her do a press conference?”

Within days, it was revealed that other entities had paid for the books, including health insurer Kaiser Permanente, which made payments during the period it successfully sought a $48 million city contract. Businessman JP Grant said his firm paid $100,000 to the mayor’s Healthy Holly LLC.

As press coverage of her business dealings continued, Pugh lamented to an adviser: “They’re out to get me.”

She went on leave Monday, April 1, saying she had been advised by her doctors to take time to recover from the pneumonia. Amid rumors, Pugh’s spokesman issued a statement the following Saturday saying she still intended to return as mayor when her health permitted.

In response, on April 8, the entire Baltimore City Council, all Democrats, called on her to resign. Baltimore’s all-Democratic delegation to the House of Delegates promptly did the same. On April 12, the influential Greater Baltimore Committee — many of whose members had financially supported Pugh’s mayoral run — joined the call for her to step aside.

As the calls for resignation increased, Pugh was under increasing stress. A source close to the mayor said she was “a mess, both mentally and physically.”

“This is her life crashing around her,” the source said.

Conway said that at one point, Pugh acknowledged to her making a mistake of failing to disclose her Healthy Holly LLC on her state ethics forms.

“She knew she had made a mistake,” Conway said. “I was really disturbed that it was not on her state disclosure. She said she had amended it.”

Her adviser Tyrone Powers, a consultant and former FBI agent who is a director at Anne Arundel Community College, stayed in close contact with the mayor during her leave. Though she remained sick, Powers said, Pugh was not confined to her house the entire time — and left to visit family in Pennsylvania and attend medical appointments.

Powers said Pugh expressed regret that acting Mayor Bernard C. “Jack” Young had fired some of her top staff, and she was hurt when she saw people who she thought were her friends abandoned her.

“She felt bad for the people who were being removed,” Powers said.

While on leave, Pugh told Powers she had decided not to seek re-election, but she wanted to finish her final year in office strong, he said.

“She fully intended to return,” Powers said. “The day before the FBI raid, she had talked about returning, her strategy, how she was going to have a revolutionary final year in office, and she could do that without an eye toward re-election.”

Then came the raids of April 25. Hauling out boxes of “Healthy Holly” books and documents, dozens of federal law enforcement agents from the FBI and IRS executed search warrants at her City Hall office and Pugh’s two houses, and several other locations. Pugh has not been charged with a crime.

The mayor stayed inside her house during the raid, watching the agents search her home and confiscate her belongings.

“She was sitting there in a state of disbelief,” a source said.

Then the agents seized the mayor’s phone. Before that, Pugh frequently would text friends and supporters — a support network that gave her advice and encouragement. She kept the texts short and mainly discussed her health, those communicating with her said.

Minutes before the FBI raid began, the mayor texted an adviser and described her condition: “Very sad, sick and very weak. Hope you’re well.”

By the time the return text came, the phone was in the hands of law enforcement.

After the raid, Pugh’s friend Betty Clark began arranging calls on her behalf, communicating to the outside world. Contacted by The Sun, Clark declined to comment for this article.

The FBI raid greatly influenced the mayor’s decision to resign, several mayoral advisers told The Sun.

“The kind of show of power and determination from the U.S. attorney’s office was intended to send a message to her,” one close adviser said. “The message was heard loudly and clearly.”

After the raids, Silverman and Pugh agreed that resignation was the best option to minimize her legal exposure.

“Steve finally convinced her that continuing to hang onto the office would make the consequences more severe,” one source said. “What started out as a legal strategy to hunker down became more unstable as more things came out.”

Powers described Pugh as “devastated” by the raid.

“If she was on the fence, if she was leaning one way or another, that helped make up her mind,” Powers said.

The night after the raid, Silverman went out and addressed the news media assembled at Pugh’s house.

“She is leaning toward making the best decision in the best interest of the citizens of Baltimore City,” he said. But her health wasn’t sound enough yet to make that decision, he added.

Pugh supporters continued to rally around her.

On Wednesday evening May 1 — a month after she’d announced her leave, and six days after the raid — two dozen people formed a prayer circle on the mayor’s lawn. They held hands and asked God to restore her health.

The next day, Thursday afternoon, May 2, a phalanx of cameras summoned by Silverman assembled at the downtown office of the law firm Silverman, Thompson, Slutkin and White.

Silverman walked out to the podium holding a manila folder containing a brief statement.

In the course of little more than a minute, Silverman said that the 50th mayor of Baltimore, duly elected by the voters, had resigned.

“I'm 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,” Pugh’s statement said. “Baltimore deserves a mayor who can move our great city forward."

Powers and other supporters were at Pugh’s house with her. Earlier in the day she had been sleeping upstairs, but came down to see her friends.

The mayor told them she wanted to read the resignation letter herself at the afternoon news conference. Seeing her condition, Powers said he and others told her that would be unwise.

“It made no sense of her to go out in the physical condition she was in,” Powers said. “She didn’t need to create a spectacle. She was mentally and physically drained.”

Even so, Powers said the mayor was fully “lucid” and in agreement that she should resign. She had come to the realization that trying to come back to office would cause political turmoil and disrupt the city she loves even more, he said.

“She was devastated by not being able to try to fulfill her vision. She really is a person who cares about how the people in Baltimore view her legacy,” Powers said.

The Pennsylvania native had represented her adopted city for two decades — as a Baltimore city councilwoman, state legislator, and finally in her dream job as mayor.

“Nobody wants this to be the last chapter of their political career,” Powers said. “She wanted to be remembered as somebody who had made some positive changes in Baltimore. There’s a great deal of sadness and mental pain.”

When 3:30 p.m. came — and Silverman read the mayor’s resignation statement — Pugh and her supporters decided not to watch it on TV. They knew what the statement said.

luke.broadwater@baltsun.com

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