BALTIMORE — The most nervous people in town right now should be the enablers of Mayor Catherine Pugh.
The FBI and the IRS are pursuing the mayor, raiding two Pugh homes and her City Hall office and hauling out boxes of records last week in full view of television cameras. The cameras were there to enhance the mayor’s public humiliation, which is already considerable. The feds were there to find traces of the “Healthy Holly” children’s book deals that netted her about $800,000.
But the money didn’t come from nowhere. There were people on the other side of the deals who apparently looked over the few dozen pages of the mayor’s prose, and told each other, “Yeah, this looks like something on which we should blow thousands of bucks.”
The problem isn’t just the vast over-payment on such literary piffle – it’s the clear conflicts of interest by organizational boards such as The University of Maryland Medical System (UMMS), Kaiser Permanente and the Associated Black Charities.
Each of these groups wishes to do business with the city of Baltimore, which Pugh runs – or , at least, ran until the news began breaking about these book deals, which have a conflict of interest written all over them.
But the conflicts weren’t just Pugh’s. And so, at week’s end, we had the U.S. attorney’s office here issuing a subpoena to UMMS, in search of further documents. On Friday, UMMS’s Robert A. Chrencik resigned his CEO post, effective immediately. Four other board members have been placed on leave, and two others (plus Pugh) have resigned from the board.
Just imagine how other institutions’ board members – and political figures elsewhere with any serious muscle – are holding their breath. As are ordinary citizens, wondering if this is just the tip of the iceberg, and asking if civic business is done this way routinely. In such ways, we become a nation of cynics.
After all, we have a history of such transactions around here, though they didn’t involve children’s literature.
Some of us still remember Spiro Agnew. He was taking bribes in little white envelopes while serving as Richard Nixon’s vice president. But, when the U.S. attorney’s office here started investigating him, they traced the payoffs all the way back through his years as Maryland’s governor and his time as Baltimore County executive.
The same thing happened when the feds went after former Baltimore County Executive Dale Anderson and Anne Arundel County Executive Joseph Alton. The feds didn’t just go after them – they went after the men handing over the bribes.
It was true, also, when former Gov. Marvin Mandel was brought to trial. Memory is still vivid of Mandel’s benefactors – the old political boss Irv Kovens and a handful of others – hunched over courtroom defense tables with their own squadrons of attorneys.
Catherine Pugh didn’t hold a gun to anybody’s head.
There were people who sat on boards of directors, looking to do business with the city of Baltimore, hoping to get big-money municipal contracts. They were looking for an edge. They wildly over-spent for the mayor’s books, somehow convincing themselves they were doing some good for children by bringing the mayor’s literary tips on proper eating and exercise into kids’ lives.
In the meantime, this has been a humiliating experience for Pugh. She is described as “distraught.” She’s barricaded herself in one of her homes since leaving the hospital with pneumonia. Her entire city council signed a letter telling her to resign, and acting Mayor Bernard (Jack) Young and Gov. Larry Hogan last week said the same thing.
But why should she be the only one paying such a price?
Michael Olesker, columnist for the News American, Baltimore Sun, and Baltimore Examiner has spent a quarter of a century writing about the city he loves.He is the author of several books, including Michael Olesker’s Baltimore: If You Live Here, You’re Home, Journeys to the Heart of Baltimore, and The Colts’ Baltimore: A City and Its Love Affair in the 1950s, all published by Johns Hopkins Press.