Baltimore Mayor Catherine Pugh retains the power to return from her leave of absence at any moment. But during her fourth week out of the office, signs of her authority at City Hall are being erased, as acting Mayor Bernard C. “Jack” Young’s name has replaced hers on budget documents, staff email signatures and official letterhead.
At a news conference Wednesday, Young said he had fired three aides in the mayor’s office with close ties to Pugh. Young emphasized he is in control of the city’s government.
“People should understand we’re still moving the city forward with a steady hand,” Young said. “I will continue to steer the ship because the mayor’s on an indefinite leave with no signs of when she's going to return.”
As Pugh faces an investigation by the Office of the State Prosecutor into sales of her “Healthy Holly” children’s book, she has been on leave to recover from pneumonia. She continues to receive her $185,000 a year salary.
Companies doing business with the city bought the books, and Pugh also sold them to the University of Maryland Medical System, where she held a seat on a volunteer board of directors.
A spokesman for Young confirmed the aides who were fired are Gary Brown Jr., Poetri Deal and Afra Vance-White. All have connections to Pugh that predate her time as mayor.
Lester Davis, Young’s spokesman, said they were informed by letter Monday and were terminated immediately because their services weren’t needed.
Three other aides to Pugh, including her chief of staff and top lobbyist, remain on paid leave.
Young, the City Council president and a Democrat like Pugh, stepped up April 2 to the position of ex officio mayor.
The City Council has called for Pugh’s resignation, with members saying the controversy over the book deals has made it hard to focus on governing the city. Members of the city’s delegation to the General Assembly and the Greater Baltimore Committee organization of business and civic leaders also urged Pugh to go.
Young has not joined those calls, but he has expressed frustration that he doesn’t know more about Pugh’s plans and says he hasn’t spoken to her in two weeks. At the news conference — part of the weekly routine at City Hall and itself one more example of Young taking on the duties of the job — Young said it was up to Pugh to decide whether she wanted to return.
But he said she would be in a difficult position if she did come back.
“Because of all of the groundswell calling for her to resign, I mean it would be devastating for her,” Young said. “I wouldn’t want to see her feelings hurt.”
Steve Silverman, Pugh’s attorney, declined to comment on the firings or the other changes at City Hall.
Despite the political pressure on Pugh, there’s little, if anything, Young can do to force her from office or even to make a decision. City Solicitor Andre Davis said at the news conference that the city charter says nothing about the terms of a mayoral leave.
“The charter is utterly silent on how long a leave can last, exactly what the reasons are for a leave,” he said. “There’s just nothing in the charter.”
Asked if there was some other mechanism that might come into play, Davis said, “I’ll be consulting with leadership in the city, as the city’s lawyer, to think about what options there are.”
He declined in an interview to say what those options might be.
Young has used his powers since taking over as mayor to reassure the public about entities that have connections to the “Healthy Holly” books. After it was revealed Associated Black Charities raised money that was used to buy copies, Young ordered an audit of a $12 million city youth fund the charity manages. City Comptroller Joan Pratt, who oversees the audit office, said last week that she expected the job to be finished within 30 days.
Then, at Wednesday’s meeting of the Board of Estimates, Young asked representatives of the city health department to explain Associated Black Charities’ role in administering federal AIDS treatment funds.
When Democratic Councilwoman Sharon Green Middleton, who chairs the board as she fills in for Young as City Council president, asked someone to come forward, no one did.
“Somebody needs to come and explain this,” Young said. “Where’s the Health Department?”
Two officials then came to the podium, but the board decided to delay for up to two weeks a vote on reapproving the charity’s deal to manage the $14 million HIV fund.
Of the three Pugh aides who were fired, Vance-White declined Wednesday to comment and Brown and Deal could not be reached.
The Baltimore Sun reported April 10 that Young had put Brown, Deal and Vance-White on paid leave. Brown and Deal worked in the city’s lobbying office. Vance-White was the city’s director of external relations.
Vance-White and Brown began working for the city days after Pugh was sworn in as mayor in December 2016 and Deal joined in January 2017.
All three have other ties to Pugh.
The Maryland Center for Adult Training, a nonprofit job training program once led by Pugh, has listed the three online as board members.
Pugh and Vance-White are co-owners, along with Pratt, of 2 Chic Boutique, a now-closed consignment store in the Pigtown neighborhood.
And Brown and Deal worked for Pugh while she was a state senator, according to records obtained by the Sun. Deal worked in her office in 2011 and 2012, while Brown was a member of her staff from 2011 until the time Pugh left the Senate to become mayor.
In 2017, Brown pleaded guilty to a campaign finance charge after the state prosecutor’s office found he used the bank accounts of some of his relatives to donate $18,000 to Pugh’s 2016 mayoral campaign. He received probation before judgement. Pugh stood by Brown after his prosecution, calling him a “good employee” and letting him keep his job at City Hall.
According to city records, Vance-White’s annual city salary was $117,300, Deal was paid $100,737 and Brown $62,220.
Remaining on paid leave Wednesday are Pugh’s chief of staff, Bruce Williams; government relations director Karen Stokes, and Stephanie Hall, who is on the staff of the Baltimore Women’s Commission.