We now know that Baltimore Mayor Catherine Pugh is deeply unethical — if not downright corrupt. While the scandal began with The Sun’s revelations that Ms. Pugh abused her position on the University of Maryland Medical System (UMMS) board to net lucrative no-bid contracts for her “Healthy Holly” book series, it has quickly spiraled to include other organizations and questionable transactions. Ms. Pugh has repeatedly used her career in public office to benefit powerful financial interests while enriching herself. She initially took a page out of Donald Trump’s book by calling investigations into her dealings a “witch hunt,” but has since announced an indefinite leave of absence. Baltimore residents should demand the mayor’s immediate resignation. More importantly, they should join together to transform city politics.
To be clear, Mayor Pugh used her position on the UMMS board for personal and political gain. While Mayor Pugh was a board member, UMMS bought an improbable 100,000 copies of her self-published books at a total cost of $500,000. Most copies remain unaccounted for. The payments for this no-bid book deal started while Pugh was a state senator serving on a health subcommittee that oversaw millions of dollars in public expenditures benefiting UMMS, and continued after she became mayor of Baltimore. Yet Ms. Pugh failed to report the book deal in her state ethics forms. Her campaign also received a loan of $200,000 from three UMMS directors in April 2016. These funds may have helped her win Baltimore’s tight Democratic primary, where her main advantage was that she had not, like her main opponent, embezzled gift cards meant for poor children. They also raise the question, until now hardly posed by the media, of what UMMS expected and may have been given in return.
Ms. Pugh’s misdeeds went beyond her role on the UMMS board. Kaiser Permanente was also in on the act, purchasing nearly 20,000 copies of “Healthy Holly” while seeking contracts to continue providing health benefits to city employees. Casting further suspicion on these book deals is the fact that Ms. Pugh sponsored or co-sponsored more than 40 bills affecting the medical industry from 2011 to 2016. In investigating Ms. Pugh’s use of the “Healthy Holly” money, the media have also unearthed details of other questionable transactions, including her purchase of a house at below market value and her role in awarding her mover a city-owned condominium for a price below its appraised value. The “Healthy Holly” story appears to be the tip of the iceberg.
Whether Ms. Pugh’s activity was illegal remains to be seen. Gov. Larry Hogan, who stands to gain politically from another Baltimore corruption scandal, has asked state prosecutors to begin a criminal investigation over the UMMS contracts. Yet it is possible, given the lax laws regulating public conflicts of interest in Maryland, that this flagrant self-dealing is perfectly legal. Sadly, a cozy relationship between public officials and private financial interests — whether large corporations, real estate developers, city contractors or major hospitals and universities — has characterized most of Baltimore’s history. And it is predictable that this orientation of its political leaders regularly generates ethical conflicts of interest, with or without illegal bribery. This does not mean it is right, or that Baltimoreans should accept it.
With so many pressing concerns in the city — deeply entrenched racial inequality, poor schools, lack of affordable housing and living wage jobs, and a corrupt police force under federal oversight for its civil rights violations — Catherine Pugh is not the type of political leader Baltimore needs and deserves. Even before this appalling scandal, Ms. Pugh showed little initiative in addressing the city’s major problems. She continued the long-standing pattern of subsidizing downtown development while neglecting the needs of struggling neighborhoods. And she backtracked on significant electoral promises to working class residents, most notably by vetoing a City Council-approved increase in the minimum wage to $15.
We should not see the Pugh scandal as the bad decisions of a single corrupt politician. We should instead see it as the result of an entrenched nexus between politicians and large financial interests that systematically shortchanges working Baltimoreans. While Ms. Pugh is probably on the way out, Baltimore residents should not stop at replacing her with the next machine politician in line for the job. What we need is new political leadership that is uncompromised by powerful donors and committed to prioritizing the city’s pressing needs. That will only happen through broad popular pressure. If the city’s community groups, non-profit organizations and regular citizens want a city government that works for its people, they should start a grassroots movement to transform its electoral politics.