Baltimore Mayor Goes on Leave as Book Scandal Intensifies

Baltimore’s embattled mayor announced Monday she is taking an indefinite leave of absence, just as a political scandal intensifies over what critics call a “self-dealing” book-sales arrangement, threatening her political career.

In a brief statement, Mayor Catherine Pugh’s office announced she feels unable to fulfill her obligations as mayor due to deteriorating health brought on by a recent bout of pneumonia.

“She’s been advised by her physicians that she needs to take time to recover and focus on her health,” her office’s statement said, adding that the City Council president will take over Pugh’s day-to-day responsibilities,

The mayor’s decision to go on leave came the same day that Maryland’s Republican governor asked the state prosecutor to investigate allegations of self-dealing by Pugh and the state’s comptroller, a Democrat, urged Pugh to step down immediately.

In a letter to the state prosecutor released Monday, Gov. Larry Hogan said recent allegations facing Pugh and her questionable arrangements to sell her illustrated “Healthy Holly” books are “deeply disturbing.” Hogan said he was particularly concerned about a $500,000 sale to a university-based health care system “because it has significant continuing ties with the State and receives very substantial public funding.”

Meanwhile, Maryland Comptroller Peter Franchot said in Monday social media posts, “The Mayor has to resign — now. The people of Baltimore are facing too many serious challenges, as it is, to also deal with such brazen, cartoonish corruption from their chief executive.”

Baltimore City Council member Zeke Cohen also urged Pugh to resign, saying she has “lost the moral mandate to govern and the public’s trust.”

The officials’ calls came hours after Kaiser Permanente disclosed that it paid $114,000, between 2015 and 2018, for roughly 20,000 copies of Pugh’s self-published “Healthy Holly” illustrated paperbacks for children. And it came about two weeks after news broke that since 2011, Pugh has received $500,000 selling her illustrated books to the University of Maryland Medical System, a $4 billion hospital network that’s one of the largest private employers in the state.

Pugh became Baltimore’s mayor in 2016. The next year, Baltimore’s spending board, which is controlled by the mayor, awarded a $48 million contract to the Kaiser Foundation Health Plan of the Mid-Atlantic States Inc. Kaiser previously held that contract.

When asked who Kaiser bought the books from, company spokesman Scott Lusk said: “We purchased the books from Healthy Holly, LLC.” That is Pugh’s company, which she has said was meant to encourage healthy lifestyles for youngsters and their families.

Additionally, The Baltimore Sun reported that CareFirst BlueCross BlueShield, another city health provider, effectively bought Pugh’s roughly 20-page illustrated books for $14,500 in 2011 and 2014. In an email, CareFirst said it made contributions to Associated Black Charities, a nonprofit that manages the city’s Children and Youth Fund, to fund its purchase and distribution of books.

It’s not clear whether this tranche of books is from another printing of “Healthy Holly” books, or from books University of Maryland Medical System had already bought and resold.

The firm Pugh identified as her books’ printer said it has produced only 60,000 copies and doesn’t have any more orders from Pugh. She’s only acknowledged sales of her book to UMMS and said they were meant to be distributed to city schools and daycares.

The mayor’s press office has referred calls to her attorney, Steve Silverman. Phone messages left at his Baltimore firm were not immediately returned.

Since the arrangement with Maryland Medical System came to light last month, Pugh has stepped down from the volunteer board and returned her most recent payment of $100,000 for the books.

At a press conference last week, Pugh described the book deal with the university-based health care system as a “regrettable mistake” and apologized for “any lack of confidence or disappointment” citizens and colleagues may be feeling. She provided five pages of paperwork, asserting they detail production and deliveries of her “Healthy Holly” books to Baltimore’s school system. She also provided a copy of a January 2011 letter to the district’s chief academic officer describing a donation of 20,000 copies of “Health Holly: Exercising is Fun!”

One of Maryland’s largest private employers, the UMMS paid Pugh half-a-million dollars for 100,000 copies of her roughly 20-page books, arguably making her among the world’s most successful self-published authors.

There was no contract behind the deal and the hospital network described some of the purchases as “grants” in federal filings. Pugh — who once sat on a state Senate committee that funded the major health network before becoming mayor in 2016 — served on the system’s board since 2001.

One-third of UMMS board members received compensation through the medical system’s arrangements with their businesses, a revelation the governor has called “appalling.” Legislation is pending in Maryland’s capital focusing on board governance.

On Monday, John Ashworth, interim leader of the University of Maryland Medical System, said he believed nothing criminal took place. But NYGREN has been chosen as an independent auditor, he said, to review financial relationships involving the UMMS and board members, among other things. They are due to start work this week.

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