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Robert K. Hur, United States Attorney announces the indictment of former Baltimore Mayor Catherine Pugh. November 20, 2019
Robert K. Hur, United States Attorney announces the indictment of former Baltimore Mayor Catherine Pugh. November 20, 2019 (Lloyd Fox/Baltimore Sun)

When The Baltimore Sun broke news this spring that Mayor Catherine Pugh had sold hundreds of thousands of dollars-worth of her poorly written Healthy Holly children’s books to the University of Maryland Medical System, on whose board she sat, she dismissed questions as part of a “witch hunt” and suggested she was an open book with nothing to hide.

But as more such sales were revealed and allegations of self-dealing made, she resigned from the board and, later, her mayoral position. We now learn that she’s been indicted in federal court on 11 counts of fraud, tax evasion and conspiracy in connection with the sales and misuse of the funds. But even before the charges were filed, it was clear she had failed her office and her city.

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We’d like to say it’s all shocking — a devastating blow. But she is the second Baltimore mayor in a decade to leave office amid corruption claims. This is, for Baltimore, becoming business as usual.

Catherine Pugh, right, is sworn in by Maryland Court of Appeals Judge Shirley M. Watts, left, as Baltimore City's 50th mayor during an inaugural ceremony at the War Memorial in December 2016.
Catherine Pugh, right, is sworn in by Maryland Court of Appeals Judge Shirley M. Watts, left, as Baltimore City's 50th mayor during an inaugural ceremony at the War Memorial in December 2016. (Kenneth K. Lam / Baltimore Sun)

The irony is that Ms. Pugh was seen as a safe choice when she ran for mayor in 2016, when the city was still reeling from the death of Freddie Gray while in police custody and its aftermath: massive unrest and frank public recognition — finally — of Baltimore’s many divisions and inequities along racial and economic lines.

Ms. Pugh was a frontrunner in the primary race that year alongside — to the city’s shame — former Mayor Sheila Dixon, who had resigned in 2010 as part of a plea agreement following a conviction for embezzling gift cards that were meant for needy families.

Ms. Pugh had long been a public servant — first in the City Council, then in the Maryland House of Delegates and state Senate — and it was thought she would, if not right the ship, exactly, at least not rock the boat during a fragile time.

“Catherine Pugh has the right background, experience and skills to lead Baltimore,” The Sun editorial board wrote in our endorsement of her.

How wrong we were.

Of course, we couldn’t have known about the gambit she was running to her financial benefit or the dominoes that would fall because of it, including a mandated overhaul of the UMMS board and the resignation of the medical system’s CEO. But we should have known that Baltimore needed — deserved — more than a so-called safe choice. We should have set our sights, and standards, higher.

We won’t make that mistake again.

The city is in crisis. Families are leaving, schools are declining, violence is soaring, and residents and business people are complaining — rightly so. Baltimore’s next mayor can’t be a business as usual Baltimorean, and by that we don’t just mean innocent of any state or federal crimes.

Baltimore won’t survive another career politician who seeks only to maintain the status quo or make incremental improvements in public services. It can’t cope with any further cronyism or lack of accountability in initiatives. It can’t handle excuses.

The city needs a visionary leader who will tackle crime with everything they’ve got, because crime — especially the violence — is connected to most of Baltimore’s other problems. That’s a tip for those competing for the job in 2020.

Now here’s one for UMMS and other organizations who deal with city leadership: Don’t let yourselves be used.

The indictment against Ms. Pugh outlines a pathetic scene in 2011, in which UMMS — “Purchaser A” — first agrees to buy thousands of Healthy Holly books on the condition they be distributed to Baltimore City schoolchildren. The schools CEO at the time then agreed to accept the book, have someone copy edit the many grammar and spelling mistakes, and then donate it to kids to take home, because it wasn’t fit for instruction. Thankfully, many wound up in a warehouse; the children, too, deserved better.

Similar transactions are alleged to have occurred over the next roughly eight years — clearly purchases made under pressure. While there’s a case to be made that UMMS and other book buyers were victims of a sort, they certainly weren’t blameless. This is not the way to curry favor with leadership. It’s wrong; they knew it.

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The medical system, a private network of more than a dozen Maryland hospitals, is now being accused of having “delayed and hindered” state auditors investigating its role in the scheme. That’s not a good look for a non-profit system that receives substantial state funding, nor for those charged with overseeing it.

Interim CEO John Ashworth (who’s set to be replaced by permanent pick Mohan Suntha Dec. 1), says officials have “always endeavored to work collaboratively and transparently” with auditors.

We hope that’s the case. But you’ll have to forgive us if we’re skeptical; we’ve heard claims of transparency before.

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