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Davis describes politics, stresses at City Hall following Pugh scandal

Andre Davis — March 4, 2020 at The Daily Record offices. (The Daily Record / Jason Whong)

Andre Davis, former Baltimore city solicitor, discussed his tenure on March 4, 2020, at The Daily Record offices. (The Daily Record / Jason Whong)

First of 2 parts

In his last week as Baltimore’s city solicitor, Andre M. Davis saw the mayor who had persuaded him to leave the federal bench and join her administration receive a three-year federal prison sentence for fraud and tax evasion.

Catherine E. Pugh’s public downfall, which started one year ago with reports of self-dealing surrounding the sales of her “Healthy Holly” children’s books, caused Davis to seriously consider how much longer he would stay on as the head of the Baltimore City Law Department.

After less than three years on the job, Davis announced his retirement in December and his last day was Feb. 28.

Davis, who left a prestigious position as a senior judge on the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in 2017 to become city solicitor, candidly admits he did not expect his role to become as political as it did. After Pugh resigned in May 2019, “it was all politics, all the time,” Davis said in a conversation with The Daily Record less than a week after his departure.

In the first part of the discussion, Davis addressed why he left, his frustration with city politics, and what it was like guiding the city through Pugh’s scandal and eventual resignation.

The second part of the discussion, which touches on police misconduct and reform as well as the major legal battles of his tenure, will run Wednesday.

When did you make the decision to step down?

Honestly, I think I started talking to Dana and my wife, but Dana — Acting Solicitor Dana Peterson Moore — probably in July or August. At least by August. So we were back and forth and back and forth and back and forth and back and forth, you know. “How long do you want to stay?” “I don’t know, seems like this is a good time to leave, wait until after the holidays, wait until after the election.”

And then over time, the time got shorter and shorter and shorter and shorter and shorter and then I decided over the holidays, this is perfect. Sixty days from now, Feb. 28, which, as it turns out, is six years to the day that I took senior status from the 4th Circuit.

What started accelerating the timeline for you?

Well, there was a sense in which, frankly, on May 3 last year, I thought, “OK, I should get out of here. Let’s face it.” But no, the political winds blew ever so violently through May and June and July and of course, I would never leave in the middle of ransomware, but just the political theater in City Hall just kind of began to wear me down.

And that was not the case when you first started?

Oh no, no, as you’ll recall (…) I came in September of 2017 and I came to practice law. I did not come to practice politics, but I understood that city solicitor is a political job — small “p” — in certain respects so I expected to deal with policy issues beyond the strict practice of law. Which includes, of course, police reform. So it wasn’t the presence of politics, just the craziness of politics. The contest.

Pugh convinced you to take this job and you liked her vision. She seemed to be a big part of what drew you to the job. Did you, in your mind, tie your tenure to hers?

Yes and no. I was city solicitor for the mayor and City Council. My main clients were the taxpayers, but if you ask me as you just did in a more polite way would I have left the bench to become city solicitor under any known or unknown candidate in 2016 or ’17? I would say no, absolutely not. And you’ll recall, I did not know Cathy Pugh and she did not know me. That was part of what made, in all honestly, it was part of what made the possibility so attractive. Not to cast aspersions on anybody, but my sort-of relatively vague recollection of who’d been the mayors and who had been their city solicitors are pretty much people who chose friends, professional colleagues, political like-minded people. And Pugh, again, say what you would about Pugh, she didn’t know me. She was not picking a “yes” person. She was not picking a political acolyte. She was not picking a political friend. I was not her political friend. She didn’t know me and I didn’t know her.

I came in with the idea, as I said, that I’m mainly going to be practicing law and the agreement we reached was that I would never disagree with her in public but she would always hear me out in private before she made a policy judgment and so forth. And honestly, she lived up to that.

Was there a time when the “Healthy Holly” scandal was unfolding where you were able to go to her and ask for information about what was going on?

By the time the big news came out, which was the first $100,000 or whatever it was, she was already on leave. She took leave April 1, but I refused to date the letter April 1 because I knew people would think (it was a joke). Seriously. So I dated the letter, I wrote the letter for medical leave, take a leave of absence, and I dated it on April 2 even though she signed it on April 1, and she was really sick at the time. And that would have been the Monday or Tuesday after the infamous press conference, which we tried our best, her executive staff, tried our best to get her not to do that.

Why?

Because we knew it would be a disaster for her. Now, we didn’t know the underlying facts, we just knew she was in no shape. She literally got out of the hospital, I think, the day before and insisted on doing this press conference and we just could not stop her. But that’s a long-winded answer to your question. No, I never asked her about it.

(A)fter the infamous press conference, you know, I was talking to her lawyer more than I was talking to her. And I was very, very, very attuned to the difference, because I’m not her lawyer, and I didn’t want to put her in the position or myself in the position of becoming a witness to anything.

Did you have a sense of how bad the situation was after federal agents raided City Hall?

Yes. I had a pretty good idea it was pretty bad. I can’t say I anticipated that there would be a search of City Hall on the 24th of April, but by that week, you know, I knew. I knew. And I don’t remember the date — you remember, there was the letter signed by all of the City Council, except Jack, and I don’t think Hogan called for her resignation until after the raid. Immediately after the raid. But the voices were rising all that week and Jack remained silent but everybody else was very loud, time to go.

And at that point, again, you’re still mostly talking to her attorney, Steve Silverman?

Exactly. I’m the city’s lawyer, looking out for the city, what’s the city’s involvement here, what do we need to do, if anything. … And really, right up until that point, up until the search of City Hall, really I had very little reason to think there was any city involvement. To be honest, up until that day, the search of City Hall, as a lawyer, a highly experienced lawyer, I was having trouble sussing out, from what I was reading, sussing out the fraud. In other words, I was saying, “OK, as wrong as it all is, clearly it’s wrong, you don’t take $100,000 and don’t write the book, but is it fraud?” Because it appeared, from the early articles, that people were giving her money on the basis of an unenforceable promise to do something. It just didn’t look like, from what we knew, as I read the papers — and of course there were lots of rumors floating around all over the place, but — nobody was promised anything and in reliance on that promise had given up anything, from what I had read. You know, of course, none of us knew all the details, at that point. So I was alert but not concerned as the city’s lawyer, but I was talking to her lawyer virtually every day.

In that last week or two leading up to her resignation, what were those conversations about? Were you advocating for her resignation?

Yes, yes. It was a question of when, not if, and how. You know, I was working very well with Steve, he was being very cooperative from the perspective of talking to the city’s lawyer and so forth.

Did he convey to you or did you have any concerns about her capacity to make the decision?

It was very concerning. I never talked to her. Well, I talked to her once, that week, a very brief telephone conversation.

What about?

About the resignation.

So you felt confident that she understood what she was doing by the time it came?

Yes.

Personally, for you, how did you feel during that period?

It was very sad, very sad. Incredulous. Sad. Angry.

Angry at whom?

Angry at her. Sad for her. Sad for the city. Angry at her enablers. Angry, sad, deeply, deeply sorrowful for the city, you know? Here we go again.

And that was when you first began to wonder how much longer you would stay?

Oh yeah, yeah. I would go home, my wife looks at me like, “OK.”

So it keeps coming at you in waves that this was not the job you took anymore?

Right, right. Yeah. It clearly was not. Well, in a way it was. I was still the city’s lawyer, but, you know, Jack Young didn’t pick me and I didn’t pick Jack Young. That’s the way I put it to people, you know.

How did you two work together?

Reasonably well, but he didn’t pick me and I didn’t pick him.

When did he find out you were stepping down?

A couple days before we made the public announcement.

Any preliminary discussions? Did he indicate that he wanted you to step down?

Look, he would tell you he did his best to keep me on and so did Dana and so did Lester (Davis) and so did everybody in City Hall — I don’t know about everybody, but it was very much, “Please, don’t leave.” And I thought about it.


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