Baltimore ex officio Mayor Bernard C. “Jack” Young, his staff and City Council allies have worked to project an impression of stability amidst the whirling scandal surrounding Mayor Catherine Pugh, but within City Hall the mood is a combination of exhaustion, bewilderment and simmering resentment.
Joint raids by FBI and IRS agents on Thursday brought the generalized anxiety at 100 Holliday St. to a near-boiling point.
“Let’s be clear, it’s to a point now … (that) basically anytime anybody is about to ask me a question, I assume the answer I’m going to have to give is, ‘She’s going to prison,’” Councilman Ryan Dorsey said Thursday morning as agents fanned out across the city.
The story has been unspooling since March 13, when it was reported that Pugh, previously a City Council member and a state senator, received more than $500,000 from the University of Maryland Medical System for her self-published “Healthy Holly” children’s book series while she was a member of the system’s board. Subsequent reporting discovered book purchases from the Associated Black Charities and Kaiser Permanente while both entities were seeking to do business with the city, pushing Pugh’s total take for the books to roughly $800,000.
Meanwhile, Pugh, who has been on medical leave since April 1, continues to recuperate from pneumonia at her west Baltimore home and, according to her lawyer, is too ill to make a decision about her future.
“She is not able to focus long enough to make rational decisions,” said Steven Silverman, of Silverman Thompson Slutkin & White.
Employees at City Hall generally do not want to speak on the record. Asked about how things are going, their answer is often a sigh or an eye roll accompanied by a comment that they are trying to focus on doing their jobs.
At least one staffer admitted to being embarrassed and disappointed by the prevailing scandal. Others said they have been avoiding friends, family and neighbors so they don’t have to deal with questions about City Hall.
Young, the City Council president who took over as acting mayor after Pugh stepped aside, repeatedly stresses his focus on day-to-day city operations, pointing out that trash is being collected, potholes are being filled and parks remain open.
“We’re not skipping a beat. We’re moving forward. I’m focused on cleaning the city, and I’m focusing on making sure we are reducing crime,” Young told reporters on Wednesday.
Almost exactly 24 hours later, Young exited City Hall as federal agents searched the mayor’s suite of offices on the second floor. Young and his staff are still working out of the City Council president’s offices on the fourth floor.
Flanked by his executive protection police detail, Young stood on the running board of the black SUV that shuttles him around town and delivered a familiar refrain: “I’m not ducking anybody. I was unaware (federal agents would raid City Hall), but we’re keeping the city moving forward.”
While most City Council members have tried to hew to Young’s message, some members occasionally depart from the script.
Councilman John Bullock admitted the situation was hard for everyone at City Hall, saying it’s been a “trying time” since the controversy erupted several weeks ago. He said he didn’t see an end to the tumult in the near future.
“I don’t see the situation getting better anytime soon,” he said. “It’s very unfortunate. It’s unfortunate for (Pugh), it’s unfortunate for the city. I don’t really see a pathway in terms of coming back and having governance in the midst of all this.”
Councilman Leon F. Pinkett III stressed the council’s focus on issues such as housing and economic development and praised the acting mayor’s leadership. But the councilman admitted to being irritated that residents were being “held hostage” by Pugh’s legal woes.
Despite the disruption, investigators need to get to the bottom of the troubles roiling City Hall and the city, he said.
“I think the investigation should go to its fullest extent,” Pinkett said. “If there are individuals who have done things that are unethical or illegal then we should find that out.”