The raids by federal investigators on Mayor Catherine Pugh’s homes, City Hall and several other locations Thursday morning represent a dramatic escalation of the crisis surrounding her leadership of the city. Here are some things we can safely conclude from this morning’s events — and some things we can’t.
» First and foremost, the searches do not mean Mayor Pugh is guilty of any crime or even that she will be charged with one. They do mean that federal investigators presented an affidavit to a judge establishing probable cause — meaning a reasonable basis for believing that evidence of a crime might be found in the specific locations designated for searches and seizures. That is a very different standard from guilt beyond a reasonable doubt, which is required for a conviction.
» That said, the wide scope of locations federal agents raided Thursday morning suggests there may be more to Ms. Pugh’s potential legal troubles than we realized. Of particular note, officials executed a search warrant at the Maryland Center for Adult Training, a non-profit Ms. Pugh once led and on whose board of directors some of her now-fired City Hall aides serve or have served. MCAT has no known connection to the sales of Healthy Holly books, the revelation of which by The Sun last month began Ms. Pugh’s ethical and legal troubles. We have seen examples in the past when criminal investigations into public corruption revealed alleged offenses far beyond those that initially sparked the inquiry — for example, former Mayor Sheila Dixon’s theft of gift cards.
» The presence of the IRS suggests federal officials are looking into possible financial crimes. Since The Sun revealed last month that Mayor Pugh had sold tens of thousands of copies of her self-published Healthy Holly books to entities that do business with the city, attention has been mainly focused on the likely basis of the state prosecutor’s investigation, which is whether she committed a crime by failing to disclose that income on her state financial disclosure forms. But participation of IRS officers in the raids raises questions about whether Ms. Pugh in fact paid the taxes due from the hundreds of thousands of dollars she received. She has said that she did but refused to provide copies of her personal or business tax records. The Sun has also been unable to reconcile the profits Ms. Pugh claims to have made from the book sales with the costs to produce them — an evident discrepancy running into hundreds of thousands of dollars.
» The search of the offices of Mayor Pugh’s attorney, Steven Silverman, is highly unusual. Communications between a client and her lawyer are protected, and the rules governing such searches are strict. According to Department of Justice regulations, such a search may be conducted if the attorney is considered a subject of the investigation — that is, he is a suspect or target of the investigation or “ in possession of contraband or the fruits or instrumentalities of a crime.” A statement Mr. Silverman issued suggests that was not the case. The other possibility is that federal investigators believed that seeking the information by less intrusive means “(1) would substantially jeopardize the availability or usefulness of the materials sought; (2) access to the materials is of substantial importance to the investigation or prosecution for which they are sought; and (3) the application of the warrant has been approved by the appropriate Deputy Assistant Attorney General (DAAG) upon the recommendation of the United States Attorney or supervising Department of Justice attorney.” That doesn’t happen often. Mr. Silverman’s statement says the agents were looking for “original financial records belonging to Mayor Catherine Pugh” and not “any attorney-client privileged communications with the mayor, or any other information or documents from the firm or its clients.”
» Finally, these events serve as a reminder that Ms. Pugh’s ability to return from her self-imposed leave of absence to recover from pneumonia is irrevocably compromised. She already faced tremendous impediments to governing given that the entire City Council has called on her to resign (along with the city’s representatives in the House of Delegates, the Greater Baltimore Committee and others) had called for her to resign. Matters got worse after the FBI raids, which prompted Gov. Larry Hogan to call on her to resign and Rep. Elijah Cummings — perhaps the one Baltimore leader with the standing and moral authority to convince her to step down — to issue a statement that did not use the word “resign” but urged her to recognize the need for Baltimore to have leadership that’s beyond reproach. And now, she will be preoccupied by federal and state criminal investigations. The only way she can serve the city is by resigning.