Baltimore's acting mayor puts Pugh's chief of staff, top lobbyist on leave amid Healthy Holly book scandal

Acting Baltimore Mayor Bernard C. “Jack” Young placed two more aides to Mayor Catherine Pugh on leave Wednesday, according to two sources familiar with the moves.

The aides are two of the most senior figures in Pugh’s team: Chief of Staff Bruce Williams and the city’s top lobbyist, Karen Stokes, the sources said.


Reached by phone Wednesday, Williams said, “I’m on leave.” He declined to answer questions.

Stokes, the city’s director of government relations, could not be reached for comment.


The sources said both will be paid while on leave. Stokes joined city government in December 2016, the day after Pugh was sworn in, and made $156,743 last year, according to city records. The salary of Williams, who joined Pugh’s team Jan. 1, was not available Wednesday.

The step was the latest personnel shake-up at City Hall since Young took over April 1 as acting mayor when Pugh began a leave of absence to recover from pneumonia. Pugh continues to receive her $185,000 annual salary.

In a statement, Young said that while he could not discuss personnel decisions, he had not fired anyone in the mayor’s office.

“In my capacity as ex officio mayor, I will make decisions necessary to provide stability and continuity of government,” Young said. “To that end, I will onboard persons whom I believe are best able to achieve both continuity and stability during this unusual time in Baltimore's history.”

Pugh is under intense scrutiny over sales of her “Healthy Holly” children’s books to the University of Maryland Medical System, where she was on the board of directors, and to companies with business before the city.

The City Council called April 8 for her to resign. Both Pugh and Young are Democrats, as are the 14 other council members.

Pugh has said through her spokesman that she intends to return as mayor when her health improves, casting uncertainty over Young’s status as the city’s leader.

Last week, Young placed three aides close to Pugh on paid leave: Afra Vance-White, Gary Brown Jr. and Poetri Deal. Vance-White’s annual city salary is $117,300, Deal is paid $100,737 and Brown $62,220, according to city records.


Deal was Stokes’ deputy in the city’s government relations office. Their absence means that office is without leadership at a time when Republican Gov. Larry Hogan is considering whether to sign legislation affecting the city that passed during the General Assembly session, which ended April 8.

Brown also works in the lobbying office, while Vance-White was the city’s director of external affairs.

Democrat Del. Cheryl Glenn, the head of the city’s House delegation to Annapolis, said Wednesday that she had not heard about the latest personnel actions by Young.

Glenn said she would have to follow up with the acting mayor to find out who she should be coordinating with as she wraps up business from the legislative session.

“Everything is in flux right now, which is unfortunate,” said Glenn, adding that she thought Stokes and Deal “were doing a good job.”

James Smith, one of Pugh’s top aides, submitted his resignation April 5 and said he plans to depart City Hall on Friday. In his resignation letter, Smith wrote that to Young that he seemed to be “well along in identifying your executive leadership.”


Bill Cole, CEO of the Baltimore Development Corp., the city’s economic development agency, announced Monday that he would be leaving for a job with a private consulting company. Cole’s departure had been in the works for several months and the BDC board voted to replace him with Colin Tarbert, a member of Pugh’s staff.

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Separately, The Baltimore Sun obtained a letter Wednesday saying that the city’s inspector general was reviewing contracts approved by the city’s spending board in the past two years — most of the time Pugh has been in office.

“The office of the inspector general is in the process of reviewing contracts that have been brought before the Board of Estimates in the past two years,” wrote Inspector General Isabel Mercedes Cumming in the April 9 letter to city officials.

She said she also was asking the city’s elected officials for information about their memberships of boards and commissions, “to facilitate a thorough review and in the spirit of transparency and accountability.”

Young told reporters he complied with Cumming’s request.

“Matter of fact,” he said, “I think I gave her more information than she needed.”


Cumming said she could not comment on an ongoing investigation.

City Council members Ryan Dorsey and Shannon Sneed asked Cumming to review contract awards made while Pugh was in office, both citing a purchase of books by insurer Kaiser Permanente. The insurer has acknowledged it purchased $114,000 worth of Pugh’s books before she led the Board of Estimates in approving a $48 million contract to provide health insurance for city employees.