"Empire" actor Jussie Smollett thanks supporters after criminal charges in his Chicago disorderly conduct case were dropped. The mayor and police chief blasted prosecutors' decision and stood by an investigation that concluded Smollett staged a fake attack in January.

No one's naïve about how the other half operates. We know about self-dealing and backscratching and backroom deals and tacit understandings and special treatment. There are numerous ways by which, as Billie Holliday sang, "Them that's got shall have. Them that's not shall lose."

But a crescendo of recent events, including Mayor Catherine Pugh's decision to take a leave of absence amid intense scrutiny over her Healthy Holly children's book fiasco, reminds us why business as usual violates all notions of fair play. That's especially so now, when the general public is in a heightened accountability mood. No matter what actually drives the inquisitors — from settling political scores to assuring good governance — the ultimate focus should be the credibility and viability of institutions and principles that are the backbone of our society.


Start with the college admissions scandal. That parents want the best for their children is understandable. What is not tolerable is what dozens of wealthy people from Hollywood to Wall Street have been accused of doing: tossing around enormous sums of money to cheat on admissions tests, to forge academic records and to pay corrupt school administrators for guaranteed acceptance by their elite universities. That's the blatant part. It's long been understood that sizable donations to some schools were enough to achieve the same goal. And then, based on one generation's relationship with those universities, future generations have been assured so-called legacy admissions.

Baltimore Mayor Catherine Pugh's 'Healthy Holly' scandal: a timeline

A timeline of Baltimore Mayor Catherine Pugh's "Healthy Holly" scandal.

Think of all the not-so-ready-for-primetime students of privilege who have made it into top universities with nary a complaint. Then think of all the bright, hard-working students from less advantaged backgrounds who have benefited from various types of diversity programs — and have been hounded for destroying meritocracy in higher education. Really now. Who is more deserving?

Two factors matter: status and money. Them that's got are using their status to assure that they always get the breaks. The givers and the takers are a multiracial, multi-ethnic lot.

How else to look at the abrupt decision by the prosecutor in Chicago to drop felony charges against the actor Jussie Smollett? Even though Chicago police have not been the most trustworthy, in this instance they have made a persuasive case that Mr. Smollett, a black outspoken social justice activist, fabricated an account of being beaten up by noose-wielding racist, homophobic Trump supporters back in January. "You don't get no respect from me," the comedian Chris Rock said in a brief but pointed comedic routine Saturday during the NAACP Image Awards show, adding: "What the hell was he thinking?"

Mayor Catherine Pugh holds a press conference about her "Healthy Holly" books. (Amy Davis, Baltimore Sun video)

I'd direct that question to the prosecutors, who treated Mr. Smollett like a celebrity rather than as a liar who sullied Chicago's already-battered reputation while forcing it to expend hundreds of hours investigating his claims.

And now Baltimore. Though condemnation and investigation now swirl around Mayor Pugh, do not forget that what's underway is a pulling back of the curtains to reveal how business is done here among the rich and the politically connected. What we've seen, thanks to a series of books created by Ms. Pugh beginning when she was in the state Senate, is how the board of directors of the powerful University of Maryland Medical System (UMMS) easily blurred the lines between the duty of oversight and personal interest in doing business with UMMS and with the city of Baltimore. The mayor is one of three directors who have resigned since The Sun blew the lid off the situation in mid-March. Another four directors have taken leaves during an investigation.

Ms. Pugh's sincere desire to inspire school kids to exercise more and eat their vegetables seems to have morphed into something that doesn't pass the smell test. She sold $500,000 worth of books to UMMS since 2011, as well $200,000 more to other entities that do business with the city. She used some of the earnings to make campaign donations to various candidates (including herself). We're seeing how the "them that's got" tradition is perpetuated, as well as the "them that's not." On one side, there are business transactions and campaign contributions and votes. On the other, 8,700 books are still in storage, never delivered to the Baltimore schoolchildren for whom they were intended, and thousands more are unaccounted for.

But Healthy Holly may have a positive impact here after all: In addition to exercise and fresh vegetables, the message is that the powers that be — with all our eyes on them — must reform a toxic system.

E.R. Shipp, a Pulitzer Prize winner for commentary, is the journalist in residence at Morgan State University's School of Global Journalism and Communication. Her column runs every other Wednesday. Email: ershipp2017@gmail.com.