Baltimore Mayor Resigns In Wake Of Book Sale Scandal

Catherine Pugh

 

The mayor of the troubled eastern US city of Baltimore, who faced allegations of corruption over sales of her self-published children’s books to companies with ties to state and local government, resigned Thursday, her lawyer announced.

Catherine Pugh, a Democrat who was elected in 2016, had faced mounting calls to step down.

The FBI raided her two homes and city hall last week, though no criminal charges have been filed.

“I am sorry for the harm that I have caused to the image of the city of Baltimore and the credibility of the office of the mayor,” Pugh said in a statement read by her lawyer, Steven Silverman.

“Baltimore deserves a mayor who can move our great city forward.”

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Maryland Governor Larry Hogan, who has called on Pugh to step down, applauded her decision as the “right” one, adding “it was clear the mayor could no longer lead effectively.”

“The federal and state investigations must and will continue to uncover the facts,” Hogan said on Twitter.

Pugh came under fire for “self-dealing” after The Baltimore Sun newspaper revealed that the University of Maryland Medical System spent $500,000 to buy 100,000 copies of her “Healthy Holly” children’s books.

At the time, she was serving as a member of the hospital system’s board.

Though she initially called probes into the deal a “witch hunt,” Pugh later resigned the board post and returned $100,000.

She called the book sale to the hospital system a “regrettable mistake.”

Then last month, the Kaiser Permanente insurance company said it paid Pugh $114,000 for “Healthy Holly” books from 2015 to 2018.

In 2017, Kaiser won a $48 million contract to provide health insurance to city employees from 2018 to 2020.

Pugh, 69, went on sick leave on April 1 as calls for her resignation intensified.

The president of the city council, Bernard Young, who had been serving as acting mayor, will complete Pugh’s term, which ends in 2020.

– Violence –
Baltimore, a city of some 600,000, is grappling with a soaring crime rate, racial unrest and poverty levels that are among the highest in the country. Since 2015, “Charm City” has recorded more than 300 homicides a year.

Pugh’s election came one year after riots shook Baltimore following the death of a young black man, Freddie Gray, who fell into a coma while in police custody.

Distrust of the police is common among African-Americans, who make up two-thirds of the city’s residents.

The Baltimore police department was forced to undergo reforms after the federal government in 2016 accused it of widespread rights violations and corruption.

AFP

Murder Threatens Already-Fragile Confidence In Baltimore Police

The funeral procession for Baltimore Detective Sean Suiter, who was fatally shot while investigating a previous killing in West Baltimore earlier this month, arrives at Delaney Valley Memorial Gardens in Timonium, Maryland, on November 29, 2017. JIM WATSON / AFP

The mournful drone of bagpipes resounded and motorists moved aside as the funeral procession for a slain detective marched through Baltimore this week, the stars and stripes of the American flag punctuating the sea of blue-clad officers gathered to pay respects to one of their own.

In the procession from a Baltimore church service to a graveside ceremony, a police motorcade escorted the hearse of Sean Suiter, who was fatally shot in the head while pursuing a suspect in November, an unsolved murder that threatens to undermine already fragile public confidence and trust in the police here.

More than 3,000 people, most of them police officers from around the state, had packed the church in west Baltimore to attend the service for the 43-year-old detective — who had been set to testify in the trial of officers accused of corruption.

The killing of a police officer “leaves a stain on our city,” said Baltimore Mayor Catherine Pugh, leader of the largest city in Maryland with a long history of violent crime fueled by poverty and drug trafficking.

As of November 30, The Baltimore Sun recorded 319 homicides this year, more than the 318 in 2016, and approaching the record 344 in 2015.

That year, the city of 620,000 people — some two thirds of them African American — was hit by rioting and looting following the death of Freddie Gray, a 25-year-old black man who suffered a severed spine while being transported in a police van in a case that caused widespread outrage.

– Suspicion of conspiracy –

Suiter — who had served on the force for 18 years as well as in the Army — “lived and died a hero,” Maryland’s Governor Larry Hogan said during the ceremony, while making note of the “countless unanswered questions” surrounding his death.

The detective was killed with his own weapon, which was found at the scene, and police have not identified any suspects, despite offering a $215,000 reward for information.

Suiter was set to testify the following day in a court case against seven officers from the elite Gun Trace Task Force accused of extortion and theft during searches.

He had worked with at least three of the defendants in the course of his career.

But police have denied any link between his death and the trial.

“I understand the speculation that exists… It’s our responsibility really to follow the evidence and there’s no evidence whatsoever,” Baltimore police commissioner Kevin Davis said last week.

The killing and the lack of progress in identifying the perpetrator pose significant problems for the Baltimore Police Department, said University of Baltimore criminologist Jeffrey Ian Ross.

With no arrest, it “only increases the suspicion among the public and other observers that there may be some sort of conspiracy going on,” Ross said, adding it “was not a bad idea” to entrust the investigation to another police department or the FBI.

– ‘Vicious cycle’ –

The Baltimore Police Department has already experienced cases of internal corruption, but “this one is major and we will pay attention to the outcomes,” he said.

Suiter’s murder also came some two months after an epilogue to the Freddie Gray case, when the US Justice Department announced that it would not pursue charges against six police officers involved in his death due to “insufficient evidence.”

Gray’s death prompted a 14-month investigation into the BPD, which concluded that officers had disproportionately and illegally stopped, searched and arrested black people for years.

A federal judge then approved a consent decree mandating Baltimore’s police department to implement sweeping reforms — which Ross suggested makes officers “reluctant to get out of their car and initiate street stops.”

“They worry that it can lead to the next Freddie Gray incident,” he said, saying the situation creates “a vicious cycle.”

At Suiter’s funeral, fellow detective Jonathan Jones read a passage from the Bible’s 23rd Psalm, alluding to the challenges officers face: “Though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil.”

“As homicide detectives,” he said, “we go through the valley, we stay in the valley and we bring those out of the valley who are sometimes lost.”

“Sean was the epitome of that.”

AFP

US Snowstorm: New York Lifts Travel Ban

New YorkNew York lifted a travel ban and mass transit started getting back to normal on Sunday after a near-record blizzard in the U.S. Northeast.

Washington, however, remained at a standstill following storms that killed at least 19 people across the country.

Some 7,000 flights were cancelled during the weekend, with forecast that the disruption would continue during the week.

The storm was the second-biggest in New York City history, with 26.8 inches (68 cm) of snow in Central Park by midnight on Saturday, just shy of the record 26.9 inches (68 cm) set in 2006, the National Weather Service said.

Thirteen people were killed in weather-related car crashes in Arkansas, North Carolina, Kentucky, Ohio, Tennessee and Virginia on Saturday. One person died in Maryland and three in New York while shoveling snow. Two died of hypothermia in Virginia, officials said.

The heaviest fall was recorded in Shepherdstown, West Virginia, which had at least 103cm of snow.

At least 85 million people have been affected by the storm, dubbed Snowmageddon and Snowzilla on social media, while more than 200,000 people are experiencing power outages.

New York Mayor Bill de Blasio said Sunday would be a major clean-up day. He urged residents to stay off streets so city crews could clear roads.

“We still have some areas that we have to do a lot more work on. But we’ve come through it pretty well,” he said on ABC’s “This Week with George Stephanopolous.”

“The snow pile is going to be with us for a while, but I think we’ll be in good shape in the next 24 hours,” de Blasio said.

After the storm moved out into the Atlantic Ocean, much of the Northeast was expected to see a mix of sun and clouds on Sunday with temperatures just above freezing.

New York state Governor Andrew Cuomo lifted a travel ban on New York City-area roads and on Long Island at 7 a.m. (1200 GMT) on Sunday. A state of emergency declared by Cuomo was still in place.

Most bus and subway services operated by the Metropolitan Transportation Authority were up and running again by 9 a.m. (1400 GMT), officials said, and the agency was working on restoring full service on Sunday.

The Metro-North rail line, which serves suburbs north and east of New York City, expected to have commuter train service running into and out of New York by 3 p.m. (2000 GMT) on Sunday. A spokeswoman for the New York Stock Exchange said the market planned to open as usual on Monday.

US Snowstorm: Massive US Blizzard Advances North

blizzardAbout 75 million people in the United States have been warned to stay at home as a massive blizzard bringing more than two feet of snow and fierce winds is advancing up the US east coast.

Reports said that the nation’s capital, Washington, could lie under a record 30 inches of snow by the time the storm passes on Sunday.

Eight people had been killed, six states had declared states of emergency, and thousands of flights had been cancelled.

The weather system is affecting a large part of the country, from Arkansas in the south to Massachusetts in the north-east.

Extremely Dangerous Storm

On Friday afternoon, as the first snow fell in Washington, the National Weather Service said it could be one of the worst storms in the city’s history.

The BBC reports that residents in the capital and surrounding suburbs in Virginia and Maryland have been warned the snowfall could eclipse the district’s record of 28in that fell during a two-day period in 1922.

As the weather system approached the country’s most populous city, New York, Mayor Bill de Blasio, urged residents to be ready.

New Jersey Governor, Chris Christie, a Republican presidential candidate, returned from the campaign trail in New Hampshire to take charge of snow preparation.

Catholics in Washington, Baltimore, and Delaware were told by archdiocese officials that missing Mass this Sunday was excusable given the terrible conditions.

National Weather Service Director, Louis Uccellini, said the system had “the potential of being an extremely dangerous storm that could affect over 50 million people”.

Deportation: Nigerian Loses $100m Suit Against United Airlines

dollarsA Federal High Court in Lagos has struck out a suit filed by human rights lawyer, Femi Falana (SAN), to challenge the alleged unlawful deportation and inhuman treatment of a Nigerian, Jacob Ajomale, by officials of the United States of America in 2010.

In addition to the Attorney General of the Federation sued as the third respondent, Falana also sued United Airlines and the Ministry of Internal Affairs from which he sought compensation for Ajomale in sums of $100m and N100m respectfully.

Ajomale claimed to have been unlawfully arrested, detained and deported in handcuffs from US to Nigeria aboard a United Airlines aircraft in 2010 despite having become a permanent resident in the US in February 2008 and having no criminal records.

He claimed to have been carrying in his body, since 2010, a tracking device, in form of a micro chip, allegedly inserted into his body, through his anus, by the US Immigration and Customs Enforcement prior to his deportation.

He claimed to have been put on board United Airlines aircraft without his travelling papers.

But in a judgment on Thursday, Justice Mohammed Idris struck out the suit, after holding that there was a major defect in the supporting affidavit.

Idris said since there was no oral evidence before the court, the affidavit was the only evidence the court could have relied upon but noted that there was a major defect in the said affidavit.

“Without a supporting affidavit, this application cannot stand.

“It cannot stand because the affidavit in support constitutes the evidence, since no oral evidence was called.

“Without an affidavit, there is no evidence to support this application and the application has failed.

“It failed and it is hereby struck out,” Idris held.

The judge awarded a cost of N5, 000 against Ajomale after striking out the suit.

Falana had sought a declaration that the alleged unlawful deportation and inhuman treatment of Ajomale in the US was a violation of is fundamental rights to dignity of human person and right to mental and physical health as preserved by sections 35 and 41 of the Nigerian Constitution and Articles 6 and 12 of the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights (Ratification and Enforcement) Act.

He urged the court to hold United Airlines liable for what he termed his “illegal transportation without his passport and in handcuffs like a criminal aboard the airline from the US to Nigeria.”

He accused the United Airlines of conniving with or aiding the US authorities to carry out what he claimed to be his unlawful deportation.

But in opposition to Falana, United Airlines, through its lawyer, Mr. F.A. Daniel, challenged the territorial jurisdiction of the Nigerian court to adjudicate over issues which he said transpired in the US.

Daniel submitted that all the inhuman treatment alleged by Ajomale were not in the knowledge of the airline, saying the airline could not be held liable.

“There is absolutely no cause of action against the 1st respondent.

“The first respondent was only obeying the law of the land from where it took off. The idea being touted by the applicant that the 1st respondent should disobey the US authorities is reprehensible,” Daniel argued.

“Your Lordship has no power, whatsoever, to adjudicate over this matter. A Nigerian court cannot question the action of a foreign country,” Daniel added.

Ajomale alleged that he was wrongfully arrested at BWI Airport in Baltimore, Maryland in 2009, detained and transported in handcuffs from the US to Nigeria aboard an aircraft belonging to United Airlines.

He claimed to have been locked up in a cold room for nine hours by a certain Officer Derrick, in an effort to extract an incriminating statement from him to the effect that he was an illegal immigrant.

He claimed to have been subsequently arraigned, tried, convicted and sentenced to six months imprisonment at the DC jail and Rivers Correction Centre, all in North Carolina before he eventually gained freedom on August 11, 2009 at 7pm.

He, however, added shortly after his release from prison and cleared by ICE, he was re-arrested on August 15, 2009 by Derrick, who claimed that his release was a mistake.

He had therefore been handcuffed and deported to Nigeria aboard United Airlines.

Freddie Gray: State of Emergency Declared As Baltimore Riots Spread

Freddie GrayA state of emergency has been declared in the American city of Baltimore amid violent protests linked to the death of a black man, Freddie Gray, fatally injured in police custody.

A curfew to last through the week has been announced from 10.00pm to 5.00am of the next day and as many as 5,000 national guard troops could be deployed.

Public schools, businesses and train stations are to remain closed on today while a baseball game has been cancelled.

Monday’s clashes began hours after Freddie Gray’s funeral.

The disturbances broke out just a few blocks from the funeral of Freddie Gray and then spread through parts of Baltimore in the most violent U.S. demonstrations since looting in Ferguson, Missouri, in 2014.

After more than an hour of mayhem, hundreds of police moved into glass-strewn streets where the worst of the violence had taken place and used pepper spray on rioters who had sacked check-cashing and liquor stores.

After dark, a community building that was under construction was engulfed in flames.

25-year-old African American, Freddie Gray, died on April 19 after a week in a coma.

Gray’s death reignited a public outcry over police treatment of African Americans that flared last year after the killings of unarmed black men in Ferguson, New York City and elsewhere.

The Justice Department is investigating exactly where and when Gray’s spinal injuries were sustained.

Meanwhile, officials have suspended six police officers who were involved in the case.

U.S. Baby’s HIV Infection Cured Through Very Early Treatment

A baby girl in Mississippi who was born with HIV has been cured after very early treatment with standard HIV drugs, U.S. researchers reported on Sunday, in a potentially ground-breaking case that could offer insights on how to eradicate HIV infection in its youngest victims.

Dr. Deborah Persaud
Dr. Deborah Persaud

The child’s story is the first account of an infant achieving a so-called functional cure, a rare event in which a person achieves remission without the need for drugs and standard blood tests show no signs that the virus is making copies of itself.

More testing needs to be done to see if the treatment would have the same effect on other children, but the results could change the way high-risk babies are treated and possibly lead to a cure for children with HIV, the virus that causes AIDS.

“This is a proof of concept that HIV can be potentially curable in infants,” said Dr. Deborah Persaud, a virologist at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, who presented the findings at the Conference on Retroviruses and Opportunistic Infections in Atlanta.

The child’s story is different from the now famous case of Timothy Ray Brown, the so-called “Berlin patient,” whose HIV infection was completely eradicated through an elaborate treatment for leukemia in 2007 that involved the destruction of his immune system and a stem cell transplant from a donor with a rare genetic mutation that resists HIV infection.

“We believe this is our Timothy Brown case to spur research interest toward a cure for HIV infection in children,” Persaud said at a news conference.

Instead of Brown’s costly treatment, however, the case of the Mississippi baby, who was not identified, involved the use of a cocktail of widely available drugs already used to treat HIV infection in infants.

When the baby girl was born in a rural hospital in July 2010, her mother had just tested positive for HIV infection. Because her mother had not received any prenatal HIV treatment, doctors knew the child was at high risk of infection. They transferred her to the University of Mississippi Medical Center in Jackson, where she came under the care of Dr. Hannah Gay, a pediatric HIV specialist.

Because of her risk, Dr. Gay put the infant on a cocktail of three HIV-fighting drugs – zidovudine (also known as AZT), lamivudine, and nevirapine – when she was just 30 hours old. Two blood tests done within the first 48 hours of the child’s life confirmed her infection and she was kept on the full treatment regimen, Persaud told reporters at the conference.

In more typical pregnancies, when an HIV-infected mother has been given drugs to reduce the risk of transmission to her child, the baby would only have been given a single drug, nevirapine.

Researchers believe use of the more aggressive antiretroviral treatment when the child was just days old likely resulted in her cure by keeping the virus from forming hard-to-treat pools of cells known as viral reservoirs, which lie dormant and out of the reach of standard medications. These reservoirs rekindle HIV infection in patients who stop therapy, and they are the reason most HIV-infected individuals need lifelong treatment to keep the infection at bay.

10-MONTH GAP

After starting on treatment, the baby’s immune system responded and tests showed diminishing levels of the virus until it was undetectable 29 days after birth. The baby received regular treatment for 18 months, but then stopped coming to appointments for a period of about 10 months, when her mother said she was not given any treatment. The doctors did not say why the mother stopped coming.

When the child came back under the care of Dr. Gay, she ordered standard blood tests to see how the child was faring before resuming antiviral therapy.

What she found was surprising. The first blood test did not turn up any detectible levels of HIV. Neither did the second. And tests for HIV-specific antibodies, the standard clinical indicator of HIV infection, also remained negative.

“At that point, I knew I was dealing with a very unusual case,” Dr. Gay said.

Baffled, Dr. Gay turned to her friend and longtime colleague, Dr. Katherine Luzuriaga of the University of Massachusetts, and she and Persaud did a series of sophisticated lab tests on the child’s blood.

The first looked for silent reservoirs of the virus where it remains dormant but can replicate if activated. That is detected in a type of immune cell known as a CD4 T-cell. After culturing the child’s cells, they found no sign of the virus.

Then, the team looked for HIV DNA, which indicates that the virus has integrated itself into the genetic material of the infected person. This test turned up such low levels that it was just above the limit of the test’s ability to detect it.

The third test looked for bits of genetic material known as viral RNA. They only found a single copy of viral RNA in one of the two tests they ran.

Because there is no detectible virus in the child’s blood, the team has advised that she not be given antiretroviral therapy, whose goal is to block the virus from replicating in the blood. Instead, she will be monitored closely.

There are no samples that can be used by other researchers to confirm the findings, which may lead skeptics to challenge how the doctors know for sure that the child was infected.

Persaud said the team is trying to use the tiny scraps of viral genetic material they have been able to gather from the child to compare with the mother’s infection, to confirm that the child’s infection came from her mother. But, she stressed, the baby had tested positive in two separate blood tests, and there had been evidence of the virus replicating in her blood, which are standard methods of confirming HIV infection.

ADDITIONAL RESEARCH

Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institutes of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, said although tools to prevent transmission of HIV to infants are available, many children are born infected. “With this case, it appears we may have not only a positive outcome for the particular child, but also a promising lead for additional research toward curing other children,” he said.

Dr. Rowena Johnston, vice president and director of research for amfAR, The Foundation for AIDS Research, which helped fund the study, said the fact that the cure was achieved by antiretroviral therapy alone makes it “imperative that we learn more about a newborn’s immune system, how it differs from an adult’s and what factors made it possible for the child to be cured.”

Because the child’s treatment was stopped, the doctors were able to determine that this child had been cured, raising questions about whether other children who received early treatment and have undetectable viral loads may also be cured without their doctors knowing it.

But the doctors warned parents not to be tempted to take their children off treatment to see if the virus comes back. Normally, when patients stop taking their medications, the virus comes roaring back, and treatment interruptions increase the risk that the virus will develop drug resistance.

“We don’t want that,” Dr. Gay said. “Patients who are on successful therapy need to stay on their successful therapy until we figure out a whole lot more about what was going on with this child and what we can do for others in the future.”

The researchers are trying to find biomarkers that would offer a rationale to consider stopping therapy within the context of a clinical trial. If they can learn what caused the child to clear her virus, they hope to replicate that in other babies, and eventually learn to routinely cure infections.

Mystery illness causes woman to grow fingernails instead of hair

A young woman has been labelled a medical mystery after falling victim to an unidentified illness which causes human nails to grow out of her hair follicles.

Shanyna Isom, 28, suffered an allergic reaction three years ago which caused the debilitating syndrome which has left her struggling to walk and carry out daily chores.

The university student was left covered in hard scabs as ‘nails’ replaced the hair on her body and doctors are still in the dark about how to cure Shanyna’s mysterious illness.

Shanyna Isom lives with her family in Memphis and was in her first year at university when the nightmare began.

In September 2009 she was prescribed steroids after suffering an asthma attack and within hours the law student was ‘itching’ all over her body.

Soon black bumps covered her legs and doctors treated her for everything from eczema to Staphylococcal infection to no avail.

Shanyna became bedridden as the illness took over and doctors tried to determine what was wrong.

In 2011 she began treatment in Baltimore where doctors established that the bumps were in fact human nails slowly covering Shanyna’s body.

She produces 12 times the normal number of skin cells per hair follicle, suffocating her skin.

‘Where hair grows, nails are growing,’ Shanyna told WAFB news.

Today doctors have yet to diagnose her but have been able to control her symptoms.

‘I couldn’t sit up and I couldn’t walk, but now I can walk with a cane and sometimes I can walk on my own.’

The criminal justice major describes it as a nightmare she is trying to wake up from.

‘They’ve tested me from A to Z and everything was coming back negative.

‘ Right now, I am the only one in the world with my illness.’

The illness has left Shanyna and her family deep in debt as state-issued insurance does not cover her care at the specialist unit she attends in Baltimore and only covers five of the 17 medications she is prescribed.

The family savings accounts are dry and her outstanding medical bills are currently up to £160,000 ($250,000).

Shanyna has set up the S.A.I Foundation to raise money for her treatment but fears she may not be able to continue.

She relies on family and friends for financial help and they have rallied around her for support.

‘At this point I just do everything I can to get the help that’s needed for her,’ her friend Tolungia Webb said.

Shanyna hopes that the foundation will be able to raise enough money to cover her medical bills and help others in the same situation.

She said: ‘If it means me dealing with this to help someone else, I’m willing to go through it.’

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