BALTIMORE — Mayor Catherine E. Pugh, who is under state and federal investigation over lucrative sales of her self-published children’s books, resigned Thursday, plunging this already rattled city into another political crisis.
Pugh (D), a former state legislator, has faced public scrutiny since March, following news reports about the book deals with companies that do business with the city and state.
Her attorney, Steven D. Silverman, announced her resignation Thursday afternoon at his downtown law office, calling it a “sad day for Baltimore” and reading a brief statement from Pugh, who was believed to be at her home in the northwest part of the city.
“I am sorry for the harm I have caused to the image of the city of Baltimore and the credibility of the office of the mayor,” she said, according to the statement. “Baltimore deserves a mayor that can move our great city forward.”
Silverman left without taking questions.
The resignation ends weeks of speculation over whether Pugh would seek to stay in office. Her departure is a bruising setback for a city long besieged by poverty and violence and still recovering from a series of police corruption scandals and rioting in 2015 related to the death of Freddie Gray.
Pugh, 69, is the second Baltimore mayor in the past decade to leave office while facing corruption allegations.
City Solicitor Andre Davis said portraits of Pugh were being removed from the walls of City Hall on Thursday and stationery was being reprinted with the name of Bernard C. “Jack” Young, 64, the longtime City Council president who was elevated to acting mayor when Pugh went on leave April 1. He now becomes mayor.
Davis, a former judge, told reporters that when he joined the Pugh administration 18 months ago he “saw a woman, a politician, an elected official who was absolutely dedicated to its people.”
“I just want people to pray for her, hope that she comes through this as a whole person because she is a human being,” Davis said, his voice emotional. “We’re all flawed . . . Sometimes we have difficulty facing what is in front of us in our lives.”
Young, who was attending a conference in Detroit on Thursday, has said he would not run for mayor in 2020, when a plethora of other candidates are expected to seek the office. Former prosecutor Thiru Vignarajah has already declared his candidacy.
“I pledge that my focus will not change. I have listened to the concerns of our citizens and I will continue to work diligently to address those concerns,” Young said in a statement. “Although I understand that this ordeal has caused real pain for many Baltimoreans, I promise that we will emerge from it more committed than ever to building a stronger Baltimore.”
Pugh’s downfall is rooted in her “Healthy Holly” books, which feature illustrations of African American children and parents and promote healthy eating and exercise. She reportedly was paid nearly $800,000 for the series — an enormous amount in the world of children’s literature — by entities that included the University of Maryland Medical System, on whose board she sat.
As the Baltimore Sun and other outlets revealed the deals in March and April, state prosecutors opened an investigation into her earnings from the books, including at least $100,000 she was paid by Kaiser Permanente as the company sought a $48 million city contract. A week ago, federal investigators seized records from two homes Pugh owns, her City Hall office, and a nonprofit tied to her. Investigators also searched the apartment of a former top aide.
At first, Pugh called questions about her book deal a “witch hunt.” She later issued a public apology and referred to her financial arrangement with UMMS as a “regrettable mistake.” She also promised she would return to work.
The scandal has stunned friends and supporters, including those who followed Pugh’s political rise.
“She is so smart and so gifted,” said A. Dwight Pettit, a Baltimore attorney who has known Pugh since the 1970s. “She might have been so smart that she outsmarted herself. It’s a tragedy.”
Stylish and demure, Pugh was born in Philadelphia, where she was on the high school cheerleading team. She moved to Baltimore in the early 1970s to attend Morgan State University and never left.
Over the years, she worked in the administration of then-Mayor William Donald Schaefer (D), was elected to the City Council, owned a public relations firm and a clothing boutique and helped start the Baltimore Marathon.
In 2005, she won a seat in the Maryland House of Delegates. Two years later, she joined the state Senate, eventually rising to the rank of majority leader.
She pushed to pass police accountability measures, as well as paid-sick-leave legislation, a proposal that led to a seat at President Barack Obama’s final State of the Union address.
During the 2015 rioting that tore up swaths of the city, Pugh was a visible presence, working with Rep. Elijah E. Cummings (D-Md.) at night to disperse crowds.
Five months later, she announced her candidacy for mayor, casting herself as a competent executive with ties to a vast coalition of white and African American supporters, business executives and leaders of the Democratic establishment, including Cummings.
Her opponents in the race included former mayor Sheila Dixon, who had resigned in 2010 as part of a plea deal over embezzlement charges.
Pugh depicted the former mayor as corrupt during the campaign, at one point sending a mailer that touted Pugh’s “record of accomplishment” while describing Dixon as having “a different sort of record.” The flier included Dixon’s image edited into what appeared to be a police photo.
Pugh described becoming mayor as her “dream job.” She vowed to spur development in impoverished neighborhoods and implement police reforms.
Her greatest advantage may have been that her main opponent was Dixon, whose past misdeeds cost her support, particularly among white voters.
“Catherine Pugh won by default because of who she wasn’t,” said Dan Sparaco, an attorney and former city official who supported Pugh at the time. “There were many people who just didn’t want Sheila Dixon to return to City Hall.”
On Thursday, Dixon said she hopes Pugh reaches out to those close to her to help her get through the current crisis. “This is when you find out who your friends are,” she said in an interview.
Dixon said she had talked to Pugh once on the phone since the scandal broke and sent her the words to Psalm 27: “The Lord is my light and my salvation — whom shall I fear?”
“I know that helped me,” Dixon said. “I told her to hold her head up and be strong.”
She declined to say whether she plans to run for mayor again.
Early in her mayoral tenure, Pugh reneged on a campaign promise to support a $15 minimum wage in Baltimore, infuriating supporters who believed she was acceding to business interests at the expense of the city’s poor.
“She positioned herself as though she would be a champion for folk who were marginalized and left out,” said Lawrence Brown, a professor in the School of Community Health and Policy at Morgan State. “Her legacy is really a betrayal of what she campaigned on.”
Pugh also faced criticism from political and civic leaders, including Hogan, who said she had no plan to combat surging levels of violence. She launched a multiagency response to crime-addled neighborhoods. But the Police Department’s leadership was in a constant state of turnover. She appointed four commissioners, including one who resigned because he failed to file federal income tax returns.
“The head and heart might be in the right place, but at the end of the day results matter, and homicides were up,” said Anirban Basu, chair of Maryland’s Economic Development Commission. “When you have leadership that’s shaky, few things get done.”
Nevertheless, as 2019 began, Pugh’s campaign account had grown to $1 million, giving her what appeared to be a robust advantage as she prepared to run for a second term.
Her potential opponents in the all-important Democratic primary included City Council member Brandon Scott, state Sen. Bill Ferguson and Dixon.
Scott, who chairs the council’s public-safety committee, called Pugh’s resignation “a day of relief and accountability. . . . Now we can go forward with tackling the vast challenges, including crime, improving quality of life and working with your young people.”
But Scott admitted that the scandal was an added hurdle for Baltimore to get over. “It’s going to be up to us to restore our reputation,” he said.
The Sun revealed on March 14 that UMMS had paid Pugh $100,000 for her “Healthy Holly” books. More payments, and additional buyers, were reported in ensuing days.
As the end of March approached, and criticism over the scandal mounted, Pugh was hospitalized for treatment of pneumonia. Soon, her office announced her leave.
She never returned to City Hall.
Hermann reported from Washington. Erin Cox and Ovetta Wiggins contributed to this report.