When the first wave of Baltimore Sun headlines about former mayor Catherine Pugh’s self-dealing children’s book scheme appeared in the spring of 2019, she and a political aide had yet to be indicted by the federal government on corruption charges.

Like many places across the internet, the Facebook group Baltimore City Voters was abuzz with theories, questions and commentary about the reporting, which, article by article, established how Pugh and Gary Brown, Jr. fraudulently sold “Healthy Holly” books in order to enrich themselves and fund her campaign for mayor.

And as information about the scheme slowly trickled out, David Troy, an independent journalist who also serves as the CEO of an email company and as the founder of a local angel investor group, made one in a series of posts in the Facebook group that would eventually lead to a defamation lawsuit from a prominent political consultant that was settled out of court earlier this year.

Sharing a Sun article that established a timeline for the scheme, Troy wrote: “This story repeats the incorrect assertion that Healthy Holly LLC was first incorporated in 2011; a prior LLC was incorporated in 2008 by her associate Desmond Stinnie and forfeited. Why?”

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The answer, Stinnie’s attorneys argued in court filings, is that Pugh knew Stinnie had experience in forming LLCs from his businesses ventures and asked for his help “in forming an LLC for a series of children’s books she was hoping to write.”

In 2008, Stinnie helped file paperwork for Health Holly Company LLC, listing himself as the resident agent for the 2008 LLC, a role that accepts legal mail and notices on behalf of a company. The business never took off, and by 2010, the LLC was forfeited without recording any book sales. Pugh would form a different Health Holly LLC in 2011, which Stinnie was not involved in.

Stinnie’s legal team argued that the post was one of several that cultivated a false conspiracy theory that Stinnie was involved in the corruption scandal, leading to damages in the political consultant’s reputation and finances.

The defamation suit was settled — its terms confidential — one day before it was due to go to trial in May; that same month, Stinnie became the moderator of Baltimore City Voters, the forum that Troy had helped found.

The inside group

The thing to understand about Baltimore City Voters — what makes it worth filing a lawsuit over— is that it’s not a typical Facebook group. Occasionally, comment battles between councilmembers made headlines in the Baltimore Sun.

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Created months after citywide protests following the 2015 death of Freddie Gray as a means of connecting voters to the people who represent them, the group, against all odds and most internet history, did a decent job of achieving its goals of discussing policy and personnel in a civil fashion.

A large share of city politicians are group members: Mayor Brandon Scott, City Council President Nick Mosby, Comptroller Bill Henry, and former Mayor Sheila Dixon. So is nearly the entire City Council; Councilwoman Odette Ramos even used to be a moderator.

So was Catalina Byrd, a city activist who ran unsuccessfully in the 2020 Republican mayoral primary. Before she stepped down from her role, feeling that her candidacy presented a conflict of interest, she moderated the group as politicians touted their legislation and residents debated everything from the merits of candidates to which aides are the most ruthless.

Byrd helped organize meet-ups for group members, from election night watch parties to happy hours, and watched the group evolve into a moderately influential sphere that today spans 12,000 members. She and others tried to keep the group as local as possible, checking the names of people who requested admission with city voting registrations in an effort to keep the group restricted to city residents.

Though it’s packed with politicos, it’s a mistake to think of Baltimore City Voters as representative of Baltimore as a whole — about 40% of city households do not have access to the internet.

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I first joined the group when I moved to Baltimore to cover City Hall in 2019, after a then-coworker described it to me as an intriguing hodgepodge of the politicians I was covering and the people who are massively influential behind the scenes — aides, fundraisers, activists, academics.

“You’d be surprised what people post there,” he said.

I was skeptical for a laundry list of reasons, mostly because of the way Facebook felt markedly different after the fallout from the 2016 presidential election, from political weaponization of social media to the Cambridge Analytica privacy scandal that led hordes of users to delete their accounts.

But once I joined, I was struck by how often things I knew and heard during off the record conversations with sources were posted in the group, by real people using their real names. Some were basic gossip tidbits that weren’t worth reporting, like a junior staffer moving from one council office to another. Some were fairly major things I didn’t have on the record at the time, such as insight into then-Councilman Brandon Scott convincing his peers to elect him as council president when there was a vacancy.

Sometimes the group’s rumor mill was accurate. Sometimes it wasn’t. Always, there was drama.

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Byrd recalled how moderators decided to ban a labor organizer who endorsed Catherine Pugh from Baltimore City Voters not once, but twice, after he “wouldn’t stop getting into it” with supporters of Sheila Dixon, her unsuccessful opponent in the 2016 Democratic primary.

“We’d suspend them and give them a chance, until Pugh called me and said, ‘Don’t let him in anymore, I keep getting calls about what he’s doing on social media in my name,’” Byrd remembered. “When candidates start calling you and telling you not to let their surrogates in, that’s when you know a Facebook group is more than just a Facebook group.”

Then there’s the story of how Byrd became a moderator in the first place.

In the run-up to the 2016 mayor’s race, some members of the group felt that moderators like Troy enforced rules differently depending on which candidates the moderators supported, Byrd said. They “policed the commentary of Black group members more so than commentary of white members,” she remembered.

After a meeting at Mount Vernon Marketplace, the group emerged with a few new Black moderators, including Byrd and Johns Hopkins professor Lester Spence, as well as Ramos, who is Latine.

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“You can’t call it a diversity hire because we weren’t getting paid,” Byrd quipped.

The changes did not do enough to quell the concerns of some Black members, who left and formed a new group called Baltimore City Black Voters, which currently has about 1,200 members.

Troy declined to an interview for this story, citing the terms of the settlement, which are not public, and issued a single comment.

“Maryland needs radically improved anti-SLAPP laws to bring it on par with better laws in other states,” Troy said, referring to the acronym for strategic lawsuit against public participation, a lawsuit filed to dissuade criticism of the person or organization filing the suit. “I think that folks should be investing time and energy in that.”

The lawsuit

Stinnie, through his web services business Opulent Cloud, has done work over the years for many city and state campaigns, from the gubernatorial campaigns of Ben Jealous and Martin O’Malley, to, most recently, Del. Dalya Attar and Sheriff Sam Cogen. The company also performed $4,700 worth of services for Mayor Brandon Scott’s 2020 campaign.

Stinnie and his attorneys contended that Baltimore City Voters is such a prominent group that Troy’s comments — which included incorrect assertions that court records showed Stinnie was involved in money laundering — caused a steep revenue decline in his political consulting business. The lawsuit, filed in July 2020, included copies of his tax returns, which showed that his taxable income dipped from about $259,000 in 2018 — a state primary year — to $57,998 in 2019 — a non-election year.

He’s also made headlines for his work as a community organizer with the Concerned Citizens of Baltimore, a group of residents who sued the city earlier this year for failing to provide “vital sanitation services in direct violation of City Code.”

Stinnie is also close to Baltimore Councilman Isaac “Yitzy” Schleifer, a Democrat who represents his neighborhood of Mount Washington.

“In addition to supporting his politics, Stinnie and Councilman Schleifer are also personal friends,” Stinnie’s lawsuit reads; it also identifies Stinnie as a moderate Democrat.

The suit alleges that Troy supported Schleifer’s left-leaning 2020 primary opponent Christopher Ervin and used the group to attack candidates and their supporters who oppose his personal views. “In conducting his ill-intentioned research,” it reads, Ervin recirculated Troy’s false theory about Stinnie being involved in the Healthy Holly scheme.

Ervin and several other members of the city’s political scene were named throughout the lawsuit, including former Democratic Central Committee candidate Evan Serpick and political consultant Travis Tazelaar, who is currently advising Mayor Brandon Scott’s 2024 campaign. Both declined to comment.

Troy made a final post in the group May 1 before departing.

“Any misleading statements I made in 2019 regarding the potential involvement of Mr. Stinnie with the Pugh scandal are retracted,” he wrote. “I regret my role in publishing those communications. I hereby retract the inaccurate statements I made in my Facebook posts, and apologize to Mr. Stinnie. I will not be discussing Mr. Stinnie in the future.”

Reactions to this post include a “like” from Baltimore Councilman Eric Costello and a “haha” reaction from former mayoral and state’s attorney candidate Thiru Vignarajah’s campaign page. Comments were disabled.

Emotions — and engagement — running high

When Stinnie became the lead moderator of Baltimore City Voters in May, he said he was surprised to learn that the phrase “Baltimore City Black Voters” — the name of the group that was created amid complaints about white group moderators — was banned from the group, unable to be written in posts and comments.

“What I wanted to do right off the bat was create an environment where folks can feel safe and participate,” he said. He promptly unbanned the phrase, and continued the tradition of having users who request to join the group check a box saying they are a Baltimore City resident and correctly answer a multiple-choice question identifying the sheriff. (It’s Sam Cogen, not Schleifer or Alex Friedman.)

If previous eras of the group saw frequent posts from politicians themselves, Stinnie said he is more interested in building a community of voters who can debate, function and negotiate among themselves to determine “the bare minimum set of requirements that our council people need to deliver to us.”

That means creating community on new group initiatives, like the podcast City Voters Live, that will feature residents across the city. Stinnie is less interested in having elected officials on the show versus having the elected officials listen.

One issue that Stinnie ties to one of his favorite moments administering the group has already rippled across the city. Complete Streets, an ordinance that has Baltimore building roadways to prioritize pedestrian, cyclist, and transit user safety, has been debated ad nauseam in Baltimore City Voters since May. Stinnie has joined parts of the discourse; he said he is not anti-pedestrian or against cyclist safety, but he doesn’t believe Complete Streets should be the law. The debate spread offline; on Thursday, the City Council held a hearing on Complete Streets, which has been in effect since 2018.

A member of Baltimore City Voters “said the group should be called ‘Desmond hates bikes,’” Stinnie said, laughing. “When people hear things that they don’t like, or they don’t agree with, the first response is an emotional one.”

The group has had reverberations in City Hall. Marly Cardona-Moz, a spokeswoman for the Baltimore City Department of Transportation, said that the agency’s Facebook account has been banned for multiple periods of time from the group, and that she has reported instances of doxxing, revealing personal information like an address, to DOT’s leadership team.

Stinnie denied ever banning the account. Cardona-Moz provided screenshots to the Banner showing that the agency’s account received two monthlong suspensions— which allowed the agency to view content in the group but not post — the most recent of which expired on Oct. 21.

During the bans, “Desmond Stinnie often tags us, but we have no way to respond,” Cardona-Moz wrote in an email. Now, “they are still selective about what they approve, but we expected that.”

When it comes to how to decide if a user is banned or a post is deleted, “there’s really no science to it,” Stinnie said. “It’s either, this works or doesn’t work.”

Byrd, the former moderator, said she’s been getting messages from people over the last six months asking if she would return to her old role.

“They’re saying they’d never thought they’d see the day that they missed David,” she said. “For people to say that they miss David like that, things must be bad.”

Stinnie said there’s nothing happening in Baltimore City Voters today that hasn’t happened in every one of the eight years that it’s been around.

“Folks who are what I would consider elite and privileged had access to be the distribution of messaging and media and narrative” of Baltimore City Voters, he said. “And it was very, very, very important to me that that dynamic had to be altered.”

Another favorite moment from his tenure of the group was seeing the city fix a member’s crumbling sidewalk after he discussed her issue on his podcast.

“We want the group to be a mandate,” he said. “For our leaders, if they look in the group, they can see, ‘Okay, this is what these guys want, right? This is what my city wants, and if I don’t do these things, then perhaps I won’t get the support I’m looking for.”

Colm O’Comartun, who served as an aide to Martin O’Malley during his tenures as mayor and governor, once used the group to spark discussions on coverage of Baltimore in the national media and muse about O’Malley’s lasting political impact. That’s changed, he said, not because of any one person but because of how internet culture as a whole has been transformed.

“I have not looked at Baltimore City Voters in a long time because I feel it spiraled into a place of weirdness,” he said.

Byrd, the former moderator, said she feels the group has run its course. “I thought it had good intentions, but I don’t think it can be salvaged. I don’t think it should be duplicated,” she said.

Stinnie would disagree.

He said he’s been in touch with people across the country about “extending this potential franchise” through more urban voters’ groups.

“It could be Philadelphia city voters, New York City voters. What we want to capture is the urban voter experience. That’s where we’re headed,” he said.

emily.sullivan@thebaltimorebanner.com

Emily Sullivan covers Baltimore City Hall. She joined the Banner after three years at WYPR, where she won multiple awards for her radio stories on city politics and culture. She previously reported for NPR’s national airwaves, focusing on business news and breaking news.

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