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Suspicions grow as Baltimore Mayor Catherine Pugh's leave drags on

Pugh has been on paid leave for more than a month. Her offices and homes were raided by FBI and IRS agents last week.
Catherine Pugh
Baltimore Mayor Catherine Pugh speaks at her inauguration ceremony on Dec. 6, 2016.Patrick Semansky / AP file

BALTIMORE — Viewers of Baltimore newscasts are getting used to seeing images of embattled Mayor Catherine Pugh's lawyer pulling up to her three-story house and vanishing inside. He later insists that her health is too fragile for her to think clearly enough to make decisions about the future.

But after a month on paid leave from her $185,000 job as the city's No. 1 official, her lawyer's cryptic comments about the mayor's open-ended retreat inside her home in the city are straining the credulity of some Baltimore taxpayers. The scandal isn't going away, leaving her politically vulnerable and deeply isolated.

"I think she's in a tough place and she's hiding at home trying to save face," city resident Rachel Richardson said early Wednesday during a break cleaning streets in Baltimore's bustling downtown. "I definitely know I can't believe what I'm hearing anymore."

While the first-term Democratic mayor still has some supporters with a wait-and-see attitude, numerous citizens who had been willing to give Pugh the benefit of the doubt now perceive her indefinite leave with suspicion. It's something her main attorney, Steven Silverman, is acutely aware of as calls for her resignation accumulate.

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"It's very hard when someone is not able to think clearly and feel physically up to task to make major decisions such as this. I know where her heart is: She's a soulful person, she cares deeply about the city despite what some people think right now," Silverman said recently after re-emerging from Pugh's home where he says they've been discussing her "options."

Some are asking why Pugh isn't hospitalized if she's so ill that she can't think "lucidly," as Silverman stated last week. Silverman has said the ailing mayor suffered a bout of pneumonia followed by bronchitis and is also "extremely emotionally distraught."

Some lawmakers are losing patience with her silence as her indefinite home leave drags on. State Sen. Jill Carter, a Baltimore Democrat who sponsored an initial reform bill that exposed alleged "self-dealing" by Pugh and other members of a Maryland medical system's board, says Silverman should produce some kind of documentation from the mayor's physician.

"I imagine she is under tremendous strain which has only exacerbated her health problems. We have to take Mr. Silverman at his word, as he is an officer of the court," Carter said. But "at the very least, he should produce a statement from a doctor as to her actual medical diagnosis, mental and physical."

Within the city and state's political class, a chorus of demands for Pugh's resignation has turned into an emphatic sing-along following last week's raids of her offices, her homes and multiple other locations by teams of FBI and IRS agents. Republican Gov. Larry Hogan said Pugh isn't "fit to lead," joining numerous Democrats who have been urgently calling for her to step down.

The scope of their investigation is not yet clear, but federal criminal investigators have vigorously joined state and city probes of murky arrangements that somehow earned Pugh roughly $800,000 over years selling her obscure self-published children's books in bulk to customers including a hospital network she once helped oversee as a state senator and major health carriers with business before the city.

A search warrant affidavit is under seal and Pugh has not been charged with anything. But there's no shortage of suspicions that she might have leveraged access and influence or perhaps used her "Healthy Holly" children's book sales for some kind of personal slush fund. One of her homes that was raided by federal agents has no traditional mortgage, suggesting the purchase, a week after her swearing-in as mayor, might have been a cash transaction.

The federal raids have dredged up a shady image that many Baltimore officials have been trying to shed. With a shrinking population and tax base, one of the country's highest violent crime rates and a police department under federal oversight, Maryland's biggest city needs more outside investment and confidence in its public servants.

Whether or not Pugh has lost her grip is anyone's guess, but she seems unable to do much at this point to salvage her political career. With her alliances in tatters, political analysts say Pugh's biggest bargaining chip with criminal investigators appears to be her refusal to resign. Only a conviction can force her ouster.

John Bullock, a Baltimore City Council member and a former political science professor at Towson University, said he understands clearly that Pugh is in a "sensitive situation," but he believes it's "a bit of a stretch at this point" to say her ongoing leave of absence is entirely health related.

"I don't know what kind of medication or anything like that that would put her to a point where she's not lucid. I understand the stress involved in it. But even if we're talking about legal issues, I'm assuming she's not mentally incapacitated and she's still fit to answer legal questions and stand trial if it comes to that," Bullock said in a phone interview.

During her lengthy political career, Pugh has long had a reputation as a hard worker, logging long days at the office. She frequently started her day as mayor with a pre-dawn jog and always cut a fit figure, even as she approaches 70 years of age. She's said she generally sleeps just a few hours a night.

But Council member Ryan Dorsey disclosed that it's been "widely murmured" in City Hall that Pugh has acted erratically for a while now. He said he's heard about "wild swings of mood and demeanor."

"This just happens to be her legal representative saying what lots of other people who are close to her seem to have been saying for some time," said Dorsey.

He said he hasn't had any interactions with Pugh in recent weeks, but it's abundantly clear to him that she's not coming back to City Hall, leaving Acting Mayor Bernard "Jack" Young to finish out her term.

"She's not welcome by anybody in the city government and not by the people of the city," Dorsey said. "And all signs indicate she's going to prison."