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Mayor's brazen corruption

Supporters of Baltimore's embattled mayor have gone quiet as demands for her resignation intensify following raids of her offices, her homes and other locations by teams of federal investigators carting out boxes of evidence. Her lawyer said she'll decide what to do once she's "lucid."

The strongest voice calling for Mayor Catherine Pugh's immediate resignation is Republican Gov. Larry Hogan, who didn't mince words after the early Thursday raids: "Mayor Pugh has lost the public trust. She is clearly not fit to lead." Many of her fellow Democrats, including those on Baltimore's demoralized City Council and state lawmakers, are insisting that the first-term mayor put the citizens' interests above any attempt to preserve her political career.

In the latest image-tarnishing scandal for struggling Baltimore, investigators with the FBI and IRS have joined state and local probes of children's book deals that earned her roughly $800,000 over the years. She sold the self-published paperbacks to customers she could benefit as a government official, including a hospital network she helped oversee and a major health plan that does business with the city.

With her political alliances now crumbled, her lawyer insists the 69-year-old Pugh is in such a fragile state physically and so "extremely emotionally distraught" that she's simply not in a position to immediately make decisions about the future. Attorney Steven Silverman said Pugh has "several options" and will make some kind of decision, perhaps next week.

"She just needs to be physically and mentally sound and lucid enough to make appropriate decisions," Silverman told reporters Thursday outside a residence belonging to Pugh that just hours before had been the site of a vigorous early-morning search by a team of federal agents.

As for the accusations that Pugh might have accepted book payments as kickbacks for favourable treatment as a state lawmaker and city leader, Silverman stressed that the mayor is entitled to the presumption of innocence. "Whether it's an ethical breach or something illegal, that process needs to be worked out," he said.

Pugh called her no-contract book deals a "regrettable mistake" at a hastily organized press conference and then slipped out of sight on April 1, just as the governor called on the state prosecutor to investigate allegations of "self-dealing." Aides said the avid runner's health deteriorated so intensely after a bout of pneumonia that she could not respond while on an indefinite leave of absence.

Many others have been less charitable about the no-contract arrangements involving her "Healthy Holly" limited liability company. As a state senator, Pugh sold $500,000 worth of the illustrated paperbacks to the University of Maryland Medical System, a major state employer on whose board she sat for nearly 20 years. She also made $300,000 in bulk sales to other customers including two health carriers that did business with the city of Baltimore.

Maryland's chief accountant called Pugh's "self-dealing" book deals "brazen, cartoonish corruption."

FBI and IRS agents searched her two Baltimore homes, her City Hall offices, and a non-profit organization she once led. The home of at least one aide was also scoured. Federal agents also served a subpoena at Silverman's city law firm Thursday morning, retrieving Pugh's original financial records. They did not seek any attorney-client privileged communications, Silverman said.

University of Maryland Medical System spokesman Michael Schwartzberg said the medical system received a grand jury witness subpoena seeking documents and information related to Pugh.

With the federal case now joining a public corruption probe by the state prosecutor's office and reviews by the city ethics board and the Maryland Insurance Administration, political analysts said Pugh's biggest bargaining chip may be her refusal to resign.

City Council member Brandon Scott said an exhausted Baltimore has had enough.

He reiterated the council's unanimous demand for her resignation, calling the spectacle of the Thursday raids "an embarrassment to the city." Yet only a conviction can trigger a mayor's removal from office, according to the city solicitor. Baltimore's mayor-friendly City Charter currently provides no options for ousting its executive.



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