Maryland’s governor on Monday called on the state prosecutor to investigate allegations of self-dealing by Baltimore’s mayor and a fiscal watchdog urged her to resign, ratcheting up pressure on the city’s No. 1 official amid the latest revelations about highly lucrative arrangements to sell her hard-to-find children’s book series.
In a letter to the state prosecutor released Monday, Gov. Larry Hogan said recent allegations facing Baltimore Mayor Catherine 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.”
The Republican governor’s formal request for an investigation came shortly after Maryland’s comptroller, a Democrat, urged Pugh to step down immediately.
“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,” Maryland Comptroller Peter Franchot said in Monday social media posts.
The two 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 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 these tranche of books are from another printing of “Healthy Holly” books, or were 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, she’s stepped down from the volunteer board and returned her most recent payment of $100,000 for the books.
At an evening press conference last week, Pugh described the book deal with the university-based health care system as a “regrettable mistake” and offered apologies for “any lack of confidence or disappointment” citizens and colleagues may be feeling. She provided five pages of paperwork, asserting they detail production and various 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.
She was one of a third of UMMS board members who received compensation through the medical system’s arrangements with their businesses, a revelation that Gov. Larry Hogan has called “appalling.” There is pending legislation 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.