US Attorney for Maryland Robert Hur talks about the effort by many people in the case against former Mayor of Baltimore Catherine Pugh.
Last week’s indictment and the resulting admission of wrongdoing by former Baltimore Mayor Catherine Pugh has certainly renewed concerns about public corruption in the city. And rightfully so considering that the 69-year-old narrowly defeated former Mayor Sheila Dixon in the 2016 Democratic primary to win her post in City Hall. Ms. Dixon previously pleaded guilty to embezzlement of gift cards intended for needy families and resigned from office under a 2010 plea deal. So that’s two mayors in nine years facing serious criminal charges. Not a good look for a city that has experienced various permutations of public corruption of late including Gun Trace Task Force police officers running amok.
But that context is somewhat misleading. Ms. Pugh is not the second mayor to leave in disgrace so much as she’s the fourth member of the Senate Finance Committee to do so since 1998. Her predecessors are Nathaniel T. Oaks, who pleaded guilty to federal corruption charges last year; Thomas L. Bromwell Sr., who pleaded guilty in 2007 to racketeering conspiracy and tax evasion charges for accepting bribes from a construction firm; and Larry Young, who in 1998 was expelled from the Senate for using his position to profit his business. All but Mr. Bromwell, a Baltimore County resident, represented the city in Annapolis.
Ms. Pugh’s connection to the Senate Finance Committee is no coincidence; it was intrinsic to her scheme. The infamous “Healthy Holly” books were not an outgrowth of City Hall, where she served on the City Council from 2000 to 2004 prior to her election as mayor three years ago, they were the direct result of her position on Finance which regulates the insurance industry. She may have been appointed to the University of Maryland Medical System’s governing board while a member of the council, but it was during her Senate years (2007-2016) that it paid off. Healthy Holly took flight in 2010, and her buyers read like a Finance Committee witness list with major book sales to UMMS, to Kaiser Permanente, to CareFirst BlueCross BlueShield and on and on. Even Maryland’s auto insurance fund or MAIF, the quasi-public agency that acts as auto insurer of last resort in the state, forked over thousands of dollars for books. It was surely no accident that MAIF is regulated by Ms. Pugh’s committee.
In the Senate, Finance is the committee regarded as the best assignment for anyone interested in soliciting campaign donations. Lobbyists hang out there like flies to honey. Utilities, health care, home builders, unemployment insurance, long-term care, all are regulated by Finance. So it’s never a surprise that senators on the committee are regularly among the top campaign fundraisers within the General Assembly. It was an ideal springboard for then-Senator Pugh’s mayoral ambitions.
So while suburbanites are tut-tutting over Ms. Pugh’s pleading guilty to conspiracy and tax evasion and questioning whether Baltimore is capable of self-governance, they might want to look around and remember that Anne Arundel and Baltimore counties have both elected at least two county executives who were prosecuted for their actions in office: John Leopold and Joseph W. Alton Jr. in Arundel; Spiro Agnew and Dale Anderson in Baltimore, with all but Agnew spending time behind bars and all but Anderson, Republicans. And then perhaps question whether there are enough safeguards in the General Assembly to prevent similar misconduct in the future. It was only this year that lawmakers’ financial disclosure forms became readily available online. That was only about two decades or more too late.
Still, it’s become increasingly clear at every level of government and most every jurisdiction that the greater the separation between elected officials and deep-pocketed special interests the better. It might not eliminate outright bribery, but the less dependent politicians are on political fundraising the better. That’s why we continue to endorse public financing of campaigns, where small donors have their contributions matched by a public pool. Baltimore’s Fair Elections Fund, now pending before the City Council after receiving preliminary approval earlier this month, is one such example with a $150 limit on campaign donations. But that’s just at the city level. At the state level, such funding is available only to candidates for governor, where it’s helped fuel Democratic and Republicans alike. Given Maryland’s history of public corruption going back to the days of former Gov. Marvin Mandel, former Maryland House Speaker A. Gordon Boone and Daniel B. Brewster, the onetime U.S. Senator indicted 50 years ago for taking bribes, such a safeguard is badly overdue.