Unhealthy Holly: Baltimore mayor taking time off as children's book deal comes under scrutiny

Christopher Wilson
Senior Writer

Baltimore Mayor Catherine Pugh is going on a leave of absence after becoming engulfed in a scandal about a series of children’s books she authored.

The Baltimore Sun reported last month that while serving on the University of Maryland Medical System’s (UMMS) board of directors, Pugh arranged deals beginning in 2001 to sell 100,000 copies of her self-published “Healthy Holly” series to the medical system at a total cost of $500,000. There were no competitive bids for the deal, and Pugh resigned from the board last month.

On Monday, 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 said anything about a deal with Kaiser.

Baltimore Mayor Catherine Pugh and her book. (Photo illustration: Yahoo News; photos: AP, Amazon)

Pugh initially called the investigation into her deal with the UMMS a “witch hunt,” but has refunded $100,000 to the medical system.

“In hindsight, this arrangement with the University of Maryland Medical System was a regrettable mistake,” she said during a press conference Thursday.

Pugh said the system then gave the books to day care programs and the city school system. As of last month, at least 8,700 books Pugh sold the medical system sat unread in a warehouse.

Pugh’s office put out a statement Monday afternoon saying she would be taking time off for health reasons:

“Mayor Catherine Pugh has been battling pneumonia for the past few weeks. She has been advised by her physicians that she needs to take time to recover and focus on her health. At this time, with the Mayor’s health deteriorating, she feels as though she is unable to fulfill her obligations as Mayor of Baltimore City. To that end, Mayor Pugh will be taking an indefinite leave of absence to recuperate from this serious illness.”

Earlier Monday, Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan formally asked for an investigation into Pugh’s dealings.

"I am writing to you to request that you investigate the matters and facts surrounding Mayor Catherine Pugh’s sales of thousands of books to the University of Maryland Medical System while she was a board member,” Hogan wrote in a letter to State Prosecutor Emmet Davitt. “These are deeply disturbing allegations. I am particularly concerned about the UMMS sale because it has significant continuing ties with the state and receives very substantial public funding."

Nine total members of the 30-person board had other business deals with the hospital system. Pugh’s indefinite leave of absence would begin at midnight Monday, with Council President Bernard C. “Jack” Young set to fill in per the city’s charter.

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

There is one book in the “Healthy Holly” series — titled “Exercising Is Fun” — on the Amazon website, listed as “currently unavailable.” It has nine one-star customer ratings, but it doesn’t appear as if any of the reviewers actually read the book.

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.” An 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. On Friday, former Baltimore Police Commissioner Darryl De Sousa was sentenced to 10 months in prison for failing to file federal tax returns.

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