Baltimore mayor refuses to step down over children's book scandal despite pressure from city council

Christopher Wilson
Senior Writer

Baltimore Mayor Catherine Pugh is refusing to resign over a scandal surrounding children’s books she authored despite a unanimous call from the city council for her to step down.

“The entire membership of the Baltimore City Council believes that it is not in the best interest of the City of Baltimore for you to continue to serve as Mayor,” the 14 council members wrote to Pugh on Monday. “We urge you to tender your resignation, effective immediately.”

Pugh went on medical leave last Monday, the same day Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan asked for an investigation into Pugh about the hundreds of thousands of dollars of payments she received for her self-published “Healthy Holly” children’s books.

“Mayor Pugh has taken a leave to focus on recovering from pneumonia and regaining her health,” Pugh’s office said in a statement issued Monday. “She fully intends to resume the duties of her office and continuing her work on behalf of the people and the City of Baltimore.”

Pugh’s troubles began last month when the Baltimore Sun reported that, while serving on the University of Maryland Medical System (UMMS) board of directors, Pugh arranged deals beginning in 2001 to sell 100,000 copies of her “Healthy Holly” series to the medical system at a total cost of $500,000. While the books teach children the importance of diet and exercise, there were no competitive bids for the deal, and Pugh resigned from the board last month.

Mayor Catherine Pugh and her "Healthy Holly" books. (Photo illustration: Yahoo News; photos: Amy Davis/Baltimore Sun/TNS via Getty Images, Jerry Jackson/the Baltimore Sun via AP)

Just before Pugh announced her leave of absence, the Sun reported that the health insurance giant Kaiser Permanente paid Pugh $114,000 for copies of her books from 2015 to 2018. In September 2017, the city’s spending board, which Pugh controls, awarded Kaiser a $48 million contract for insurance for city employees. Pugh has not commented about the deal with Kaiser.

Additional Baltimore groups and individuals have stepped forward since Pugh has gone on leave to say they purchased books from her, bringing the total money she received for the series to nearly $800,000At least 20,000 copies of the “Healthy Holly” series remain unaccounted for, and another 8,700 sit unread in a warehouse. Pugh initially called the investigation into her deal with the UMMS a “witch hunt” but has since refunded $100,000 to the medical system while characterizing the deal as “a regrettable mistake.”

The head of the Maryland Democratic Party echoed the council’s comments on Monday.

"Mayor Pugh has often spoken of her love for Baltimore City and her desire to see it thrive,” Maryland Democratic Party Chair Maya Rockeymoore Cummings said in a statement. “I’m sure she would agree that the Healthy Holly saga is a distraction that undermines that goal. I trust she will do what is obviously in her best interest and that of our great city. I wish the Mayor a speedy recovery."

Baltimore’s city charter doesn’t state how a mayor can be removed, meaning it could be impossible to evict Pugh from office without a conviction or guilty plea. Councilman Ryan Dorsey is among those urging the Maryland General Assembly to amend the state’s constitution or city charter to allow for a mechanism to remove Pugh. On Sunday, one of Pugh’s top aides stepped down because of the scandal.

Acting Baltimore Mayor Jack Young talks to reporters after meeting with state senators who represent Baltimore on April 2 in Annapolis. (Photo: AP/Brian Witte)

Pugh's political career began in 1999 when she won election to the city council. After serving in the Maryland Legislature and rising to the post of Senate majority leader, she clinched the mayoral office by winning 37 percent in the 2016 Democratic primary.

This is not Pugh’s first foray into literature. In 2005, before she became mayor, she self-published a book of poetry titled “Mind Garden: Where Thoughts Grow.” The book contains the following excerpt:

Can you take a politician at their word? For what is said . . . May not be what you heard . . . They can twist and turn and show concern . . . But what they spoke could be a joke . . .

The mayor’s troubles are the latest embarrassment for the city. Last month, former Baltimore Police Commissioner Darryl De Sousa was sentenced to 10 months in prison for failing to file federal tax returns. One of Pugh’s predecessors, Mayor Sheila Dixon, stepped down in 2010 after embezzling gift cards that were meant for needy Baltimore families.

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