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A mayor’s house, contractors and a web of self-dealing

by Fern Shen and Mark Reutter6:07 pmMay 2, 20190

Pugh’s downfall was propelled by her ineffective leadership

Baltimore’s 50th mayor flailed and faltered while in office, but nobody called her out until the “Healthy Holly” scandal broke

Above: In 2019, Catherine Pugh’s “Healthy Holly” books are showcased in a display at the Langston Hughes Community Resource Center in Pimlico. (Fern Shen)

Baltimore lost its mayor today. But long before the unsavory details involving Catherine Pugh’s “Healthy Holly” children’s books were revealed – leading to her resignation, announced this afternoon by her lawyer – many Baltimore residents had already concluded they didn’t have much of one to begin with.

“That explains why there was no support for her after Healthy Holly broke. She had already blown it,” developer David Tufaro told The Brew.

“Pugh hasn’t been leading. This mayor never surrounded herself with strong, capable people. She’s just been presiding over the disintegration of an already troubled city,” said Tufaro, whose company renovated Whitehall Mill, Mill No. 1 and other historic city properties.

This sentiment was widely shared.

Progressives who got to know Pugh as West Baltimore’s 40th District state senator thought they could count on her politics to more or less align with theirs, said Charly Carter, who has represented labor and working families’ interests in Annapolis for years.

“Pugh was the only sort-of progressive on the Finance Committee, the best of a so-so bunch. So bills like earned sick leave and minimum wage –she introduced them,” Carter said.

“But she was a huge disappointment as mayor,” Carter continued, citing Pugh’s flip-flop on her promise to sign a $15 minimum-wage bill as one example. “It was evident from the beginning that she was very cozy with the city’s business interests.”

During her 29 months in office, Pugh was not only ineffective in the wake of rising crime and an epidemic of homicides that psychologically crippled the city – she showed little appetite for tackling government’s serious but less sexy challenges.

A Pugh campaign poster during the 2016 election. (Committee to Elect Catherine E. Pugh)

Pugh’s campaign slogan during her successful run for mayor in 2016. (Committee to Elect Catherine E. Pugh)

“Trumpian” Isolation

Take the BRESCO trash incinerator, long targeted by environmentalists as Baltimore’s biggest source of industrial air pollution.

Pugh could have negotiated with the plant’s operators to force them to install cleaner technology, but she didn’t, noted a veteran city official, who asked not to be identified.

The City Council eventually filled the leadership vacuum, passing stringent emissions standards that could lead to the shutdown of the facility without a plan for how to ship the waste elsewhere.

“She really didn’t care about something like that – and she wasn’t listening to the kind of person who would tell her she should,” the official complained, going on to liken her to the isolated and mercurial U.S. president.

“We often talk about how she is really kind of Trumpian.”

Mayor Catherine Pugh led a procession of city department heads and elected officials. (Fern Shen)

Mayor Catherine Pugh holds up her sign at a December 2017 vigil for the families of crime victims. (Fern Shen)

Messaging Gone Bad

The dysfunction and distractions – consider how much energy and political capital was expended on “squeegee kids” – gave the appearance of a rudderless and, at times, frivolous administration.

To be sure, Pugh was taking charge of a city with deep-rooted problems. But her efforts to change the narrative sometimes seemed as clumsy as the pre-printed signs – “HAPPINESS,” “EMPATHIZE,” VIBRANT,” “TRANSFORM” – she handed out at a vigil for the families of crime victims. (Security personnel had forbid those who brought their own home-made signs to display them.)

Other public relations gambits, such as the hiring of Greg Tucker as her personal $240-an-hour media guru backfired, especially with widely-scorned work product like a video showing Pugh berating a boy with a squeegee.

A child with a spray bottle and squeegee Mayor Catherine Pugh encountered Thursday on a Baltimore Street. (YouTube)

A video produced by the mayor’s office showed her berating a child holding a spray bottle and squeegee: “Get off the corner,” she told him. (YouTube)

Meanwhile, she struggled on substantive issues:

• Unable to find a police commissioner without tax or resume problems, Pugh was responsible for a two-year gap in BPD leadership. At the same time, Baltimore experienced record-breaking homicide rates and mortifying police misconduct, which culminated in the federal prosecution of members of the Gun Trace Task Force.

• Igniting the hopes of advocates for the city’s poor with her murmured references to “the least among us,” she dashed them by shelving a mayoral task force’s recommendations on homelessness and, instead, ordered encampment clearings.

• While controlling the Board of Estimates, Pugh okayed generous contracts and contract bump-ups to campaign supporters and bundlers of political contributions.

As instances of lassitude and favoritism piled up, the administration never managed to deliver on modest good-government promises like sanitary waterways, affordable housing, clean streets, a functioning bikeway network or accurate sewer and water bills.

Cronyism at Work

Indeed, signs of cronyism appeared from her first days in office – ironic for a candidate who positioned herself during the primary as the upright alternative to opponent Sheila Dixon, who had resigned as mayor after being convicted of embezzlement.

Instead of, for example, firing two men who separately broke state campaign finance laws when they pumped key pre-primary cash into her campaign coffers, Pugh employed them at City Hall as soon as she took office.

“Talk to my committee treasurer” Keith Timmons, Pugh told reporters at a press availability in January 2017, after state officials cited former Baltimore County Executive James T. Smith Jr. for illegally loaning Pugh $100,000 from an obscure campaign slate.

As she spoke, Smith stood in the meeting room doorway in his newly created role as the mayor’s $175,000-a-year “chief of strategic alliances.”

Pugh smiles at the Wynn Resort in Las Vegas while attending the 2016 Maryland Party with Jim Smith (left) and Caves Valley principal Arsh Mirmiran. (Brew photo files)

A month after winning the Democratic primary, Pugh posed with Jim Smith (left) at the 2016 RECon shopping center convention in Las Vegas. At right is Caves Valley Partners principal and Pugh contributor Arsh Mirmiran. (Brew file photo)

And working nearby in the mayor’s public affairs office was Gary Brown Jr.

A city grand jury indicted him for illegally funneling $18,000 to the mayor’s campaign using the names of his mother and other family members. After pleading guilty to election law violations, Brown continued getting a paycheck at City Hall until he was fired last month by Acting Mayor Bernard C. “Jack” Young.

Federal and state criminal investigations of Pugh now underway take place amid questionable activity by Pugh that goes beyond the Healthy Holly book scandal.

They range from a condominium sold at below market price to the owner of a company that moved Pugh to her new Ashburton house to a company that got a lucrative conduit contract and gave her a discounted house renovation.

See No, Speak No

As dissatisfied as many insiders were with Pugh, none was willing to say aloud what was whispered with a knowing eye roll before the Healthy Holly payments to Pugh became known: That the Pugh administration was a deep disappointment.

With the political elite holding its tongue, it was activists and community organizers who first called the administration out.

“Mayor Pugh is simply NOT the mayor we need,” Morgan State University professor Lawrence Brown wrote in a 2017 Medium post. “She is the mayor for corporate developers and big businesses.”

“We feel like we are being totally ignored!” activist ShaiVaughn Crawley protested, confronting Pugh at City Hall after he and other activists blasted her first police commissioner pick, Darryl DeSousa, at a confirmation hearing.

“Baltimore’s business leadership do not speak up. They’re worried about retribution.”

Regular citizens also weren’t shy about expressing their frustration over the mayor’s failure to stem persistent violence or to control soaring water and sewer rates.

And yet a similar critique from the business and non-profit community – from bankers and builders to foundations and universities – was nowhere to be found.

“Baltimore’s business leadership do not speak up. They’re worried about retribution,” Tufaro explained.

“They’re afraid of what they’re not going to get,” he said. “The TIFs and tax breaks like Port Covington and Harbor Point got.”

Fundraiser Non Pareil

A skill that even her harshest critics acknowledged was her ability to raise money.

The Maryland State Prosecutor and federal law enforcement agencies are now investigating Pugh’s Healthy Holly book sales that appear to have generated at least $800,000 in income from entities that do business with the city and state.

But along with whatever “dark money” Pugh acquired in the name of promoting children’s health, there was the roughly $1.5 million she raised openly since winning the  Democratic Party primary that appeared to guarantee her re-election in 2020.

A search of public records by The Brew showed that Pugh received copious contributions from a “who’s who” of local power players even in off-election years.

Particularly generous donors included administrators at prestigious academic institutions like Johns Hopkins University (as Hopkins launched a controversial effort to get state approval of a private police force) and the University of Maryland Medical System (the hospital network on whose board she sat and which purchased $500,000 worth of Holly books, never disclosed on Pugh’s ethics forms.)

Then there were $32,000 worth of campaign contributions by dozens of top executives from BGE, Exelon and Constellation.

Yesterday the conglomerate’s advantageous deal to build a natural gas pipeline through Leakin Park was ratified by the Board of Estimates, suggesting that while mayors can come and go, some things never change.

Liking “that Lifestyle”

What propelled Pugh through an impressive 20-year political climb, from City Council back bencher to a Maryland Senate subcommittee chair and back to Baltimore in 2016 to assume the top job in City Hall?

Many say she savored a role among the the city’s affluent power players – the movers and shakers she courted so effectively as a campaign fundraiser.

“She liked being around the people with money and clout. She liked that lifestyle,” a prominent local politician told The Brew.

Another elected leader, who counts Pugh as a friend, put it this way: “She can walk into a crowded room and know immediately who is the most powerful and snuggle right up to them.”

Her supporters would say the city benefited from her trait of aggressively pursuing the powerful.

Michael R. Bloomberg, the billionaire philanthropist and former New York City mayor, was regularly name-checked in her public remarks. “Michael Bloomberg doesn’t invest like this in just any city,” Pugh liked to say, touting the $10 million commitment to a small business support program by Bloomberg Philanthropies and Goldman Sachs.

Mayor Catherine Pugh and an entourage of city and police officials tour the Sandtown-Winchester neighborhood. At left, Acting Commissioner Gary Tuggle. At right, Major John Webb. (J.M. Giordano)

Pugh tours the Sandtown-Winchester last year, one of many poor communities where gun violence spiraled out of control during her tenure. (J.M. Giordano)

Pugh bristled at suggestions that she held the city’s poorest residents at arm’s length or didn’t care about their concerns.

She chided a Brew reporter during one of her Violence Reduction Initiative walk-throughs in struggling Sandtown, saying, “What you-all should know is that we do this every week. You may not come here, but we do!”

Disrespecting AFRAM

And yet many drew the opposite conclusions from such decisions as her decree that the venerable AFRAM festival be scaled back from a two-day extravaganza on the grounds of Camden Yards with national acts to a low-key one-day affair at Druid Hill Park with local talent.

“This from a black mayor? I bet you wouldn’t do Artscape like this,” one disappointed AFRAM fan said at the time.

Pugh’s self-dealing scandal and stunning fall is “going to make voters even more cynical now,” said activist Carter, whose efforts are now focused on getting progressive leaders into local politics.

“We had just gotten through Sheila Dixon and then through [Stephanie Rawlings-Blake] who had an incredibly cozy relationship with the business lobby. People were really hoping for something different.”

“But,” Carter added ruefully, “they just got more of the same.”

In 2007, Rawlings-Blake campaigns with Sheila Dixon (right) and Catherine Pugh. Pugh lose to Rawlings-Blake in 2011 and is telling supporters she'll run again in 2016. (Brew file phone)

Then a state senator, Pugh campaigns in 2007 with  Mayor Sheila Dixon (right) and Stephanie Rawlings-Blake. Rawlings-Blake become mayor in 2010 after Dixon resigned as part of a plea deal following a corruption investigation and trial. (Brew file photo)

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