Hours after being released from the hospital for a bout of pneumonia on Thursday, Mayor Catherine Pugh apologized for her arrangement with the University of Maryland Medical System to sell hundreds of thousands of copies of her children’s books while she was serving as an unpaid board member.
“I am deeply sorry for any lack of confidence or disappointment which this initiative may have caused among Baltimore City residents, friends and colleagues,” a reserved and, at times, choked up Pugh told reporters at a press conference at City Hall. “In hindsight, this arrangement with the University of Maryland Medical System was a regrettable mistake.”
“As your mayor, I am committed to conducting my office in a way that maintains your trust and reflects only positively on our city.”
Reflectively, Pugh explained that the idea for her “Healthy Holly” series originated about 10 years ago after she attended a conference on childhood obesity while she was serving as a state senator. She said she “started scribbling” and developed the Healthy Holly character as a way to playfully push children to adopt healthy lifestyles and eating habits.
It wasn’t until 2010, Pugh said, that she self-published the first book, “Healthy Holly: Exercising is Fun,” in a limited run and began sharing it with local organizations as an educational tool. As she’s previously explained in a statement, she shared it with a fellow UMMS board member—Pugh began serving on the UMMS board in 2001—who then recommended the system purchase copies to distribute to the school system.
Pugh went on to explain her deal—noting there “was never any formal contract”—with UMMS. The hospital system drew up a donation agreement with the Baltimore City Public School System to receive the books UMMS would purchase from her at a rate of $5 a copy. Pugh said she went before the school system’s Academic Committee to present the content of the books, and it was accepted.
“It certainly seemed like an ideal way to combine focus and forces to bring a positive influence to those who need it the most.”
Pugh went so far as to display manifests for the shipments of books that followed, which wound up just shy of 60,000 copies over three orders, with a fourth order still underway, to show they had in fact been delivered to City Schools. The press conference didn’t offer any accounting for each payment of $100,000.
In each order, she said, there was a run for about 20,000 copies, with between 1,500 and 2,000 going to Pugh herself to bring around to schools and daycare centers.
The most recent order never materialized, as has been reported, because the person charged with laying out the books fell ill. Pugh said she returned the most recent payment of $100,000 but still plans to take on the costs of printing, shipping and distributing the books when it can all be fulfilled.
But as The Sun and others chronicled, thousands of copies are nowhere to be found, and nearly 9,000 were discovered to be sitting in a warehouse on Pulaski Highway, unused. For the latter batch, “I am making arrangements to make those books available to our children and our community,” Pugh said.
As for the rest? She punted to City Schools. “I do hope that we find out from the school system where the rest of those books are,” she said today.
City Schools, for its part, said it’s reviewing the paperwork Pugh shared with reporters.
Pugh also retrieved a number of items from a table behind the podium showing she had others products in the “Healthy Holly” line, including jump ropes, bibs, baby clothes and blankets the mayor had fashioned, with words like “crawl,” “jump” and “run” printed on them to remind children, as well as babies, to stay active.
“The whole concept was to teach our children how to live healthy lifestyles,” she said.
A choked up Pugh ended the presser without additional details, saying that “because this matter is under review, along with the arrangements of other board members in the UMMS, I have been advised that I cannot take questions. But I can tell you that this has been very concerning, and I thank you for listening.”
The mayor was referring to the requested probe of the hospital system’s board, nearly a third of whose members were discovered to have had side deals with UMMS that netted them millions of dollars combined.
The president of the system, Robert A. Chrencik, has since been placed on a temporary leave of absence, and the board has moved to bring in an outside accounting or law firm to examine the contracts between UMMS and its directors.
Pugh resigned from the board this month—albeit, while defending her actions as “above board,” saying she filed all her taxes, and referring to a torrent of media coverage of the scandal as a “witch hunt.” Two others resigned as well, and four more board members were asked to take voluntary leaves of absence.
Reporters have subsequently discovered UMMS mislabeled its payments to Pugh as “grants” on tax forms, and that Pugh created a company called Healthy Holly, LLC, which she used in part for political donations, including to her own campaign and to other local politicians.
Other reports show Pugh also purchased and renovated a new house in Ashburton during the time when she was being paid for the books.
Gov. Larry Hogan, Senate President Thomas V. “Mike” Miller and House Speaker Michael Busch–both Miller and Busch are board members, with Miller delegating his seat to Sen. Nancy King–have condemned the side deals of their colleagues and called for audits of the system. This week, Busch also amended proposed legislation to require the entire board to step down.
For her part, Pugh also said she wanted to “apologize for causing any reputational damage to the University of Maryland Medical System.”
She also said she intends to learn from the experience—and that she’ll keep writing.
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