Photo by Brandon Weigel.

The Baltimore Sun staff won the Pulitzer Prize in local reporting for the newspaper’s investigatory work on former Mayor Catherine Pugh’s children’s book line, ultimately exposing the series as a scheme Pugh used to enrich herself and part of a larger pattern of self-dealing on the board of the University of Maryland Medical System.

Under increased pressure as more and more book deals were revealed by The Sun and other outlets, Pugh took a leave of absence in April 2019 before resigning one month later.

In November, the disgraced former mayor pleaded guilty to federal conspiracy and tax charges.

Five top executives resigned from the non-profit hospital operator, and state lawmakers passed ethics legislation reforming its board of directors.

The citation credits The Sun staff for “illuminating, impactful reporting on a lucrative, undisclosed financial relationship between the city’s mayor and the public hospital system she helped to oversee.”

Ten stories are included as part of the winning submission, featuring bylines from State House reporter Luke Broadwater, City Hall reporter Talia Richman, former investigative reporter Doug Donovan, education reporter Liz Bowie, business reporter Meredith Cohn, former police reporter Kevin Rector, former City Hall reporter Ian Duncan, and enterprise reporter Jean Marbella.

Reached by Baltimore Fishbowl, Donovan, who now works at Johns Hopkins University, said he cried when he saw the news, remarking that the story “was one of the most grueling and impressive stretches of reporting I’ve ever been part of at The Sun.”

“So many people worked so many long hours nailing down so many different tentacles to produce a series that generated near-immediate results with the mayor’s resignation and the UMMS board’s overhaul,” he said. “The entire newsroom rallied day after day, never to chase a prize but to fulfill the highest ideals of journalism: to hold public officials accountable. Sounds corny, but it’s true.”

Broadwater, who happened to be celebrating his 40th birthday on Monday, said he was “surprised and grateful” when he learned the staff had won the Pulitzer.

“Looking back, I think the thing that stands out to me the most is how much of a difference journalism can make,” he said. “Lots of days, this isn’t a great job. But sometimes you can have a tremendous impact.”

He said he never thought about awards as he and other Sun journalists pursued various leads and kept peeling back layers of the onion. “I was running down the story wherever it went.”

Donovan agreed, saying reporters are caught up with triple-checking facts, “eating vending machine crap” and watching editors make critical catches before a story goes to press.

“You’re too busy thinking about potentially horrifying errors,” he said. “So it’s nice to be rewarded, to have someone outside say: nope, you nailed it and it rocked.”

Trif Alatzas, publisher and editor-in-chief of Baltimore Sun Media, said in a statement: “This Pulitzer Prize reflects the grit of a team of exceptional journalists who never quit, never stop asking difficult questions and never stop demanding answers and accountability from those in power. It highlights what so many of us already knew–that Baltimore Sun Media is one of the premier regional news organizations in the country year in and year out thanks to the dedicated efforts of its journalists who deliver trusted news for the Baltimore region each and every day. We are thankful Pulitzer Prize Board members and jurors recognized this work across our newsroom.”

Joining Donovan in the ranks of now-former Sun staffers are Duncan, who is now covering transportation at The Washington Post, and Rector, who recently took a job covering police in Los Angeles for the Los Angeles Times.

The saga began in March 2019, when Broadwater wrote a story detailing how multiple unpaid members on the board of the University of Maryland Medical System, including Pugh, have conducted business with the organization.

He reported nine members of the 30-person board have contracts with hospitals under the school’s umbrella, including for goods and services such as civil engineering and pest control, worth hundreds of thousands of dollars each. In Pugh’s case, the organization paid $500,000 for 100,000 copies of the mayor’s self-published children’s books promoting fitness called “Healthy Holly.”

The story originated as a tip from state Sen. Jill P. Carter, who had heard from a constituent about the difficulties of getting a contract with the medical organization. Carter also planned on submitting a bill barring conflicts of interest before the scandal took off.

“When Sen. Carter first approached me with the idea to look into hospital contracts, I never dreamed the stories would have the impact they did,” Broadwater said.

More digging revealed how money from Pugh’s company for the children’s books went toward political donations, and that her initial defense of her book sales was false.

Eventually, The Sun revealed how Pugh orchestrated book deals with a number of other entities, such as health providers Kaiser Permanente and CareFirst BlueCross BlueShield, and developer James P. Grant.

In November, federal prosecutors charged Pugh with 11 counts of wire fraud, conspiracy to defraud the U.S., conspiracy to commit wire fraud and tax evasion related to her “Healthy Holly” children’s book scheme.

Federal authorities found that Pugh often didn’t deliver the orders to the buyers and would often double-sell copies, netting nearly $850,000. She was sentenced to three years in federal prison in February.

Baltimore Sun Media Group said this is the sixth time since 2015 the company was named a finalist for journalism’s top prize. The Capital Gazette received a special citation last year for coverage of the 2018 shooting in the paper’s newsroom that killed five.

Editorial cartoonist Kevin “Kal” Kallaugher was also named a finalist in this year’s editorial cartooning category, though he was classified as a freelancer because his entry included work from other publications.

In all, the paper has won 16 Pulitzers, with the last prior to today’s coming in 2003, when Diana K. Sugg took home the award for beat reporting.

Today’s announcement comes as the newsroom’s union is undertaking a campaign, called Save Our Sun, to garner support for a local ownership group that wants to buy the daily from parent company Tribune Publishing and turn it into a nonprofit.

After negotiating for a rare pay bump last year, the union last week agreed to permanent pay cuts for employees making $67,000 per year or more and to furloughs, concessions management at Tribune and Baltimore Sun Media Group asked for as the news business continues to see its advertising crippled by the coronavirus pandemic.

Management threatened the lay off five staffers if the Baltimore Sun Guild representing reporters, designers, photographers, building staff and some ads team members didn’t agree to the cuts, the union said.

The union contended management “was adamant about permanent pay cuts because they are using the coronavirus pandemic as an opportunity to chip away at our strong contract.”

The Abell Foundation, Goldseker Foundation and former Baltimore County Executive Ted Venetoulis, who have all previously expressed interest in acquiring The Sun, are all in the group hoping to acquire it.

Goldseker president and CEO Matthew D. Gallagher said Tribune is aware of the group’s interest.

He told Baltimore Fishbowl the nonprofit model could stabilize the region’s largest daily newspaper. The Sun’s newsroom is reportedly down to 80 reporters, editors and photographers, both union and non-union, after having as many as 205 staffers as recently as 2009.

“Return expectations are vastly different when being compared to a hedge fund,” Gallagher said. “Our hope is with that kind of approach, if this were to come to pass, we could position The Sun on much more stable footing going forward and can reinvest back into the paper.”

This story has been updated.

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Brandon Weigel

Brandon Weigel is the managing editor of Baltimore Fishbowl. A graduate of the University of Maryland, he has been published in The Washington Post, The Sun, Baltimore Magazine, Urbanite, The Baltimore...