The following editorial appeared in the Baltimore Sun.
When the Baltimore Sun broke news this spring that Mayor Catherine Pugh had sold hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of her poorly written “Healthy Holly” children’s books to the University of Maryland Medical System, on whose board she sat, she dismissed questions as part of a “witch hunt” and suggested she was an open book with nothing to hide.
But as more such sales were revealed and allegations of self-dealing made, she resigned from the board and, later, her mayoral position. She has now been indicted in federal court on 11 counts of fraud, tax evasion and conspiracy in connection with the sales and misuse of the funds.
Pugh is the second Baltimore mayor in a decade to leave office amid corruption claims. The irony is Pugh was seen as a safe choice when she ran for mayor in 2016, when the city was still reeling from the death of Freddie Gray while in police custody and its aftermath: massive unrest and frank public recognition of Baltimore’s many divisions and inequities along racial and economic lines.
Pugh was a front-runner in the primary race that year alongside former Mayor Sheila Dixon, who resigned in 2010 as part of a plea agreement following a conviction for embezzling gift cards meant for needy families.
Pugh had served in the City Council, the Maryland House of Delegates and state Senate. “Catherine Pugh has the right background, experience and skills to lead Baltimore,” the Sun editorial board wrote in our endorsement.
How wrong we were. Of course, we couldn’t have known about the gambit she was running. But we should have known Baltimore deserved more than a so-called safe choice. We should have set our sights, and standards, higher.
The city is in crisis. Families are leaving, schools are declining, violence is soaring and residents and business people are complaining. Baltimore won’t survive another career politician who seeks only to maintain the status quo or make incremental improvements in public services. The city needs a visionary leader who will tackle crime with everything they’ve got.
The indictment against Pugh outlines a pathetic scene in 2011, in which the university agrees to buy thousands of “Healthy Holly” books on the condition they be distributed to Baltimore City schoolchildren. The schools’ CEO at the time agreed to accept the book, have someone copy edit the many grammar and spelling mistakes and donate it to kids to take home, because it wasn’t fit for instruction. Thankfully, many wound up in a warehouse.
The university and other book buyers weren’t blameless. The medical system, a private network of more than a dozen Maryland hospitals, is now being accused of having “delayed and hindered” state auditors investigating its role in the scheme. Interim CEO John Ashworth says officials have “always endeavored to work collaboratively and transparently” with auditors. We hope that’s the case. But forgive us if we’re skeptical; we’ve heard claims of transparency before.