Flying out to Las Vegas on Sunday, Mayor Catherine Pugh is poised to speak this afternoon at a trade association “summit” whose chief purpose, according to its press release, is to promote “the historic movement toward the availability of energy choice for consumers in Nevada, California and other neighboring states.”
Given that Baltimore is 2,000 miles away from western energy markets and city government isn’t even involved in matters of energy deregulation, the mayor’s choice of an audience (the National Energy Marketers Association) and venue (Caesars Palace) may seem puzzling.
Actually, there’s a personal logic to her Nevada rendezvous with NEM (hint: it dates back to her Annapolis days). The public purpose of her three-day absence from City Hall, however, isn’t all that clear.
Below the Radar
Her trip was not announced by a press office that has been busy, since her departure, publicizing her fall fun festival and touting the success of her squeegee initiative (“Mayor Pugh’s Squeegee Corps Program Gains Support of Faith-Based Leaders and Community” was the headline of a media advisory).
Disclosure of the trip to Caesars Palace, however, was slipped into page 73 of the Board of Estimates agenda two weeks ago.
A three-sentence entry noted that NEM would pay for the mayor’s airfare and hotel costs in return for her “keynote address.” Taxpayers would foot the group’s hefty registration fee of $695, as well as “additional subsistence of $80 meals and incidentals and $60 for ground transportation,” for a total bill of $835.
The mayor did not travel alone. A top aide, Karen Stokes, accompanied her. The cost of Stokes’ travel, hotel, meals and incidentals is $967.23 – all taxpayer-paid.
Unlike the mayor, Stokes did not pay a registration fee to NEM, which indicates that she is not participating at the trade association’s summit.
What is she doing?
We asked Pugh’s spokesman Anthony McCarthy that question and others. What is the mayor planning to talk about later today? How will her trip benefit citizens back home? Why did she arrive in Vegas two days before her address to NEM?
So far: no response.
“Elected officials can go on these kinds of trips and don’t have to do any filings because they’re not in Maryland.” – Common Cause’s Jennifer Bevan-Dangel
The absence of information about what government officials do during out-of-town, taxpayer-funded trips is a “glaring loophole” in Maryland’s ethics and campaign finance laws, says Jennifer Bevan-Dangel, executive director of Common Cause Maryland.
“Elected officials can go on these kinds of trips and don’t have to do any filings because they’re not in Maryland,” she said. “We need to strengthen the law so the public knows what elected officials do when they aren’t here.”
Bevan-Dangel cited the annual pilgrimage of city and state politicians to the International Council of Shopping Centers convention in Las Vegas as a prime example of lack of accountability.
What Happens in Vegas
Last May, Pugh joined dozens of other local and state officials at the fabled Maryland Party at the Las Vegas Wynn Resort and mingled at poolside cabanas with developers and contractors, all of these interactions “off the books” and far from home.
Most famously, Pugh attended the 2013 shopping center convention during which she attended the wedding of City Hall’s premier lobbyist couple officiated by then-Baltimore Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake.
And shortly after winning the Democratic primary for Baltimore mayor in 2016, she hitched a ride to the Las Vegas convention on the private jet of Walter Tilley, Maryland’s “pest control king”.
Pugh said she went to the shopping center convention this year to bring back business to the city. She gave a speech imploring retail chains to locate grocery stores in inner-city neighborhoods.
“Maybe today she’s connecting with alternative energy providers,” said Bevan-Dangel.
“Maybe she’s developing state-of-the-art policies for a green, clean Baltimore. But right now, there’s no way of knowing if there’s any clear benefit in return for the mayor using taxpayer money.”
Pugh’s greatest show of devotion to NEM took place immediately after the April 2015 riots
Pugh’s relationship with NEM dates back to 2009 when she was a first-term state senator from the 40th District and praised the group’s mission of trying to deregulate energy markets.
Since then, she has become a regular at NEM conferences and summits, speaking at least a dozen times to the D.C.-based group in various locales.
In 2011, she boasted to the group about a bill she sponsored in the General Assembly that required the Maryland Public Service Commission to develop a supplier pricing website and conduct consumer education on the value of “energy choice.”
But Pugh’s greatest show of commitment to NEM took place immediately after the April 2015 riot that followed the burial of Freddie Gray.
Despite the angry crowds and National Guard troops patrolling the streets of her West Baltimore district, Pugh journeyed down to Washington to speak at a NEM conference.
The group still has photographs of that day (see the lead photo and photo below) as well as this comment on Facebook:
MD Senate Majority Leader Catherine Pugh receives standing ovation during a one hour break from a non-stop 36 hour tour of duty to help restore order in the wake of the Baltimore City Tragedy.
Now that’s what you call dedication.