Baltimore Mayor Catherine Pugh announced Monday she plans to take a leave of absence amid a children’s book-selling scandal that’s prompted calls for an investigation and threatens to derail her career.
At the center of the scandal is a series of “Healthy Holly” children’s books that Pugh herself authored and sold at least 140,000 copies of between 2011 and 2018. Pugh sold the majority of the books to government partners, but she also sold around 20,000 to a private company seeking a multimillion dollar contract with the city of Baltimore.
The Baltimore Sun first reported on Monday that health care provider Kaiser Permanente bought around 20,000 of the “Healthy Holly” books for distribution in and around Maryland from 2015 to 2018, paying Pugh $114,000 in the process.
And in a bit of troubling timing, Kaiser’s payments to Pugh overlapped with a $48 million contract the company signed with the city of Baltimore in September 2017 ― a contract approved by a board Pugh controls.
Per the Sun, it’s the latest in a string of lucrative children’s book contracts involving Pugh and “Healthy Holly” going back to 2011, when she sold 20,020 of the self-published books to Baltimore City Public Schools.
Pugh also had a $500,000 deal from 2011 to 2018 to sell 100,000 books to the University of Maryland Medical System, where she’d previously served on the board of directors. Pugh resigned from her position on March 18, days after the yearslong deal came to light.
Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan (R) asked State Prosecutor Emmet Davitt to investigate the “deeply disturbing allegations” Monday afternoon:
Pugh initially dismissed the Sun’s inquiries into her book deals as a “witch hunt.” But at a news conference last Thursday, she called the arrangement with the University of Maryland Medical System “a regrettable mistake” and apologized “for any lack of confidence or disappointment” it may have caused. She didn’t take any questions.
“Every day, we get a little bit more,” Sen. Ben Cardin (D-Md.) remarked to CBS Baltimore after the press conference. “It raises more questions than answers.”
Baltimore public schools told the Sun the district can’t verify if it received the full order of books, shipments of which it called “unsolicited.” The school system has 8,700 “Healthy Holly” books in storage.
In an emailed statement to HuffPost, Kaiser spokesman Scott Lusk said the company has offered a health plan to Baltimore City employees since 1986 — long before the September 2017 contract was agreed to.
As for the books, Kaiser said it purchased copies of “Healthy Holly” as part of a broader program to distribute health-centered literature that’s been ongoing since 2013.
“We purchased Healthy Holly books because we believe residents would be inspired by a book about health and wellness authored by a member of the Baltimore community,” the statement read. “In light of the issues that have been raised, Kaiser Permanente is reviewing the process through which books are selected and procured.”