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Baltimore Residents “Tired,” “Sympathetic,” “Furious” With System After Fed Raids

Jose Luis Magana/AP

Baltimore saw another chapter of the ongoing Healthy Holly scandal unfold Thursday: FBI and IRS agents raided seven properties associated with Mayor Catherine Pugh.

Photos of agents wearing FBI windbreakers and carrying boxes marked “Healthy Holly” swept through group chats, trending topics on social media, and the media -- local and national outlets alike.

Many Baltimore residents say they’re tired: tired of Pugh’s apparent self-dealing, of the system that allowed it and of the uncertainty of her tenure.
“These are our folks whose mission and interest ostensibly is to improve the health and well-being of the roughly 600,000 people who live here,” said Melissa Schober, “and when they fail to do that, and when they act in their own self-interest, they harm the reputation of the city and they harm people's lives for years to come.”

Schober, a policy analyst, said she believes the problems illustrated in Baltimore in the last several weeks aren’t just about Pugh.

“She’s not the only board member of the [University of Maryland Medical] system,” Schober said. “She's not the only person who's on the board or familiar with Associated Black Charities or Kaiser Permanente or on the Board of Estimates… other people knew… that this money changing hands could not have been done under cover of night. No one was meeting in a dark alley to exchange a big bag of cash.”

Last month, the Baltimore Sun reported that Pugh sold $500,000 worth of her self-published  Healthy Holly children’s books to the hospital network while she served on its board of directors. In addition, health insurance provider Kaiser Permanente bought more than $100,000 worth of the books while it was pursuing a lucrative city contract. And Associated Black Charities said it collected $90,000 for the books from several companies, sending $80,000 to Pugh and keeping the rest.

Schober said she would prefer to see reporting on a wider scope that “includes the individuals in the political class and social class that made it possible for this scandal to take place.”

“Some of them, as far as I can tell, remain sitting on boards today,” she said. “They're on the Greater Baltimore Committee. They're on the board of Associated Black Charities. And the fact that those folks still control so much political and cultural capital in this city is distressing.”

Others wonder if there might be more to this than the book deals.

“I think there's beyond a reasonable doubt that she's done things that are unethical, if not criminal,” said Baltimore resident Gary Smolyak, who works as a computer systems administrator.

Pugh was hospitalized with pneumonia in March. As the Healthy Holly scandal progressed, she went on an indefinite leave of absence, citing the illness, April 1. City Council President Jack Young has served acting mayor since then.

In the last few weeks, he has insisted repeatedly that he’s focused less on following the details of the Healthy Holly scandal and more on ensuring that city government continues to get things done. Smolyak says Young is a steady hand.

“I'd like to think that what's going on hopefully isn't affecting the city because it's under the good leadership from like other people in the city council,” he said. “But I know it's not doing the city any good by having this kind of thing as a distraction.”

Smolyak says there’s only one way to reduce the uncertainty of an indefinite paid leave.

“I personally think Pugh should resign,” he said.

Baltimore resident Justin Kay said he gave the mayor “a fair shot.”

“I’m a Baltimore City resident homeowner and taxpayer. I'm not happy with things in general so I don't blame her, I don't think it's one person's job [to prevent scandal],” Kay said. “I think as a whole system of things that need to change…. I don't think much is going to change with to the next person is if the whole system doesn't change.”

“I probably would have ripped the Band-Aid off immediately [and resigned,] and moved on and let things continue on with Jack Young,” Kay said.

Others, like eighty-six-year old Juanita Hayes, wonder if Pugh is capable of handling this week’s events, given her apparently still ongoing pneumonia. Hayes, a lifelong Baltimore resident, hopes Pugh’s physical health is rebounding so that she can become active again.

“I have sympathy with her,” Hayes said. “I think of her as her daughter. I have a daughter about her age,” she continued. “And I'm concerned about [Pugh]. She'll do what's right, she'll do what's right. She'll step down.”

Pugh’s personal attorney, Steven Silverman, spoke with reporters Thursday night outside her home after an hour-long meeting with her.

He said she is still battling pneumonia and is not “lucid” enough to make major decisions -- such as resigning or attempting to forge ahead with her term. 

“She is leaning toward making the best decision in the best interest in the citizens of Baltimore City,” Silverman said.

WYPR's Mary Rose Madden contributed to this report.

Emily Sullivan is a city hall reporter at WYPR, where she covers all things Baltimore politics. She joined WYPR after reporting for NPR’s national airwaves. There, she was a reporter for NPR’s news desk, business desk and presidential conflicts of interest team. Sullivan won a national Edward R. Murrow Award for an investigation into a Trump golf course's finances alongside members of the Embedded team. She has also won awards from the Chesapeake Associated Press Broadcasters Association for her use of sound and feature stories. She has provided news analysis on 1A, The Takeaway, Here & Now and All Things Considered.