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Mayor’s corruption scandal further fuels Baltimore’s cynicism about politics

Baltimore is once again beset by allegations of corruption. The city’s mayor, Catherine Pugh, is accused of bestowing contracts and political favors on companies and organizations that purchased large orders of her book. The scandal, plus rising crime and a lack of economic opportunity, keep Baltimore residents cynical about government. William Brangham talks to Paul Jay of the Real News Network.

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  • William Brangham:

    It was a striking scene, federal agents raiding Mayor Catherine Pugh's home yesterday, carrying out boxes of financial records and documents tied to a growing political scandal.

    The FBI and IRS searched at least six Baltimore addresses linked to the mayor, including City Hall. It's the first federal involvement in this growing investigation of Pugh.

    The allegation against the mayor is that she took payments for her children's book series called "Healthy Holly" when, in fact, the payments were really kickbacks. Since 2011, the University of Maryland medical system paid Pugh half-a-million dollars for 100,000 copies of the self-published books. She was a board member there for 18 years.

    The CEO of that medical system resigned this afternoon. Pugh sold another $300,000 worth of books to other customers, including two health carriers that did business with the city. Last month, she apologized, her voice weakened by an apparent bout of pneumonia.

  • Catherine Pugh:

    I am deeply sorry for any lack of confidence or disappointment which this initiative may have caused on Baltimore city residents, friends and colleagues.

  • William Brangham:

    Pugh has since taken a leave of absence and resigned her board seat at the university medical system. An acting mayor has stepped in. But calls for her to leave office permanently are growing.

    In a letter earlier this month, Baltimore's entire City Council wrote, "We urge you to tender your resignation, effective immediately."

    And this week, Maryland's Republican Governor Larry Hogan said the same. Pugh is just the latest Baltimore mayor besieged by scandal. Her predecessor, Stephanie Rawlings-Blake, faced heavy criticism for how she handled the 2015 riots after a young black man named Freddie Gray died in police custody. She didn't run for reelection.

    Before her, Sheila Dixon resigned after being convicted of embezzlement. The city has also gone through four police commissioners in the last 18 months, while the city's crime is surging. Homicides are up and arrests are down.

    So let's get some perspective from a longtime Baltimore journalist and resident. Paul Jay is the editor-in-chief of The Real News Network, a nonprofit headquartered in the city.

    Mr. Jay, thank you very much for being here.

    Could you just help us understand the nature of — the allegation against the mayor is that these medical centers were buying all of these copies of her book, self-published book, which is really money right into her pocket. And I guess the assumption then is they're somehow trying to curry favor with the mayor; is that it?

  • Paul Jay:

    Yes.

    And this begins before she was a mayor. When she was a member of the state assembly is when the book sales began, which I think goes back five or six years. And she was voting on legislation that favored the expansion and development of the Maryland Health Care System and other hospitals while she was on the board. She's been on the board for many years of the Maryland hospital system.

    So — and she was pocketing this money, 100,000 books at five bucks apiece for half-a-million dollars. But when she becomes mayor, other places start buying these books. A big insurance company in town that was up for an insurance contract with the city bought something like $100,000 worth of these books and then wound up getting the big insurance contract.

    Another fellow who does financing for fleets of vehicles and other kinds of financing for city enterprises apparently bought $50,000 worth of these books. The number in the end comes, to I think, over $800,000, in assuming the allegations are correct.

    It seems a rather overt case of corruption, but I must add, one must ask, why did she think she would get away with it?

  • William Brangham:

    I mean, it is such a striking scene to see federal agents raiding the house of the mayor, going into City Hall.

    What has the reaction been amongst people in Baltimore?

  • Paul Jay:

    The immediate reaction, the early reaction of a lot of ordinary people was, here they go again targeting an African-American politician.

    There's an enormous cynicism in the city about government and politics in general. Most people believe there's a whole culture of corruption. We just had a major scandal in the Baltimore police force, where the Gun Task Force — this is the unit that's supposed to get guns off the streets — it turns out, for 10 years, was actually involved in robbery and robbing dealers and breaking into houses and more.

    Some of those guys, those cops who have now gone to jail. Several employees police commissioners have gotten into hot water. The one before this one, I believe, actually got some jail time.

    More recently, as people — the FBI came out with the boxes and such, I think people accepted, well, there must be something to these allegations. But it's added on to what's already an enormous cynicism that these chronic problems of poverty and unemployment and a murder rate of, you know, something somewhere upwards to 350 a year — now, that's as much as New York City, which is 13 times the size of Baltimore.

    There's enormous cynicism that anything can change. And, of course, this adds to it.

  • William Brangham:

    The governor, the city council all seem to say the mayor has to go. Is your sense that she can survive this?

  • Paul Jay:

    No, there's no way she can survive this, I don't know think.

    She's emotionally dysfunctional herself. We understand she's in deep depression. And one way or the other, the city, even though there's no formal way to get rid of her, I can't see she's coming back.

    But that's a very important point, that people are getting organized to change the city charter so that there is, in fact, a way to impeach the mayor and, even more importantly, devolve some of the powers of this all-powerful mayor to City Council, make the entire process more transparent and accountable, because who benefits from an all-powerful mayor?

    Real estate developers, bankers, people who want insurance contracts. So, people are asking the question, if Baltimore is going to be for the people of Baltimore, and not for all these other kind of commercial interests, primarily, they need to change the way the city is governed.

  • William Brangham:

    All right, Paul Jay of The Real News Network in Baltimore, thank you so much.

  • Paul Jay:

    Thank you for inviting me.

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