By DAVID McFADDEN
BALTIMORE (AP) — Federal agents executed search warrants Thursday morning at two homes belonging to Baltimore’s embattled mayor and at City Hall.
Dave Fitz, an FBI spokesman out of the agency’s Baltimore office, says agents with the FBI and the IRS criminal division in Washington were “executing court-authorized search warrants” at “both residences and City Hall.” He said he couldn’t immediately release more information because the search warrants are sealed.
Mayor Catherine Pugh’s spokesman, James Bentley, said he has no immediate comment. Pugh’s defense attorney, Steve Silverman, did not immediately return calls.
Pugh has been facing mounting calls for her to resign over a scandal that involves the sale of her children’s books to entities that do business with the city. She was already already facing a criminal investigation by the state prosecutor’s office, which began at the request of Republican Gov. Larry Hogan, as well as probes by the Baltimore Inspector General, an ethics board at City Hall and a state insurance commission.
It’s been more than three weeks since Pugh slipped out of sight, citing deteriorating health from a pneumonia bout. Five of her staffers have since joined her on paid leave.
Pugh said she was going on leave on the same day Hogan asked for the investigation of lucrative sales of her “Healthy Holly” books to customers, including a major hospital network she once helped oversee as a state lawmaker and a health plan that does business with the city.
The sales earned about $800,000 for her limited liability company.
Since then, the first-term mayor has been asked to resign by the entire lineup of the current City Council, all Baltimore lawmakers in Maryland’s House of Delegates, the influential Greater Baltimore Committee business group and others. Maryland’s chief accountant called Pugh’s “self-dealing” arrangements to sell her books as “brazen, cartoonish corruption.”
But only a conviction can trigger a Baltimore mayor’s removal from office, according to City Solicitor Andre Davis and the state constitution. Baltimore’s mayor-friendly City Charter currently provides no options for ousting its executive.
“The charter is utterly silent on how long the leave can last, exactly what the reasons are for a leave,” Davis told reporters.
Members of Pugh’s communications staff have said repeatedly that she intends to return to City Hall when she is feeling better, but have declined to provide any timetable.
As multiple investigations into the mayor’s books ramp up, political analysts say Pugh’s biggest bargaining chip at the negotiating table is her refusal to resign in a city accustomed to a high-drama, insular political culture.
Pugh came to office in late 2016 after edging out ex-Mayor Sheila Dixon, who spent much of her tenure fighting corruption charges before being forced to depart office in 2010 as part of a plea deal connected to the misappropriation of about $500 in gift cards meant for needy families.
While the accusations have certainly cast a shadow over Pugh, she has not been indicted for any crime, and it is unclear how long a criminal investigation will take. Earlier this month, Silverman said the mayor looks forward to cooperating with the state prosecutor’s probe and will provide “as much information as possible to put this matter to rest.”
Pugh would certainly face a bruising 2020 Democratic primary if she were to return and run for reelection. Many political observers believe she’ll never again be able to wield power effectively due to the scandal.
A veteran City Council leader, Bernard “Jack” Young, is serving as acting mayor. Young said he would merely be a placeholder when she went on leave, and at a Wednesday news conference, he stressed that the decision is up to her. But given the groundswell of opinion against her, he said “it could be devastating for her” if she tried to return.