Amid the fallout over contracts between the University of Maryland Medical System and members of its board of directors, the institution’s overseers have asked president and CEO Robert A. Chrencik to take a leave of absence starting March 25.
John Ashworth, senior vice president of network development for UMMS and an associate dean at the University of Maryland School of Medicine, will serve as interim president and CEO.
In a unanimous vote at an emergency meeting held today, the board decided to bring in an outside “accounting/legal firm” to conduct an assessment of the contracts between board members and UMMS.
“The status of the affected board members who currently have business relationships will remain intact while each agreement is being reviewed,” the medical organization said in a statement.
In his own statement, Burch said: “There is nothing more important than the trust of those that depend upon the Board’s leadership. And, over the past week, I’ve had the proper time to listen to concerns and reflect. The Board and I are firmly committed to evolving our governance principles and operating with even more transparency.”
The board’s moves come after a bill by Sen. Jill Carter (D-Baltimore) and multiple stories in The Sun exposed the ethically fraught business deals between UMMS and its board members–most famously a six-figure contract for the organization to buy children’s books from Mayor Catherine Pugh and distribute them at local schools and daycare centers.
Carter’s legislation would explicitly prohibit such relationships.
On Monday, Pugh resigned from the board, saying she has “many other pressing concerns that require my full attention, energy and efforts.” Yesterday, she placed phone calls to several reporters to say she properly paid taxes on the sale of her “Healthy Holly” books promoting youth fitness and returned the most recent payment of $100,000, and dismissed questions about her deals as a “witch hunt.”
Asked to release her tax returns, Pugh declined.
The mayor reportedly received $500,000 for 100,000 copies of “Healthy Holly” books since 2011, dating back to when she was a state senator. In tax forms, The Sun reported, UMMS labeled the two most recent purchases as “grants,” one to the school system and one to a company formed by Pugh, also named Healthy Holly. Pugh took money from that company and used it for political donations, including a $5,000 gift to her own campaign, the paper found.
Baltimore City Public Schools, meanwhile, still has nearly 9,000 copies of the books, which a spokesperson labeled “unsolicited,” sitting in a warehouse.
Hours after the board announced Chrencik’s leave of absence, Pugh put out a lengthy statement Thursday afternoon explaining where she got the idea for “Healthy Holly.” She said, “it was a project that I was passionate about, and I was excited for the opportunity to expand its reach. I recall passing the time by thumbing through the first book before an UMMS meeting. One my colleagues loved it and thought it would help advance children’s health.”
While the statement included no apology or new details, Pugh summarized that she’s already resigned from the medical system’s board, has updated previously erroneous financial disclosure forms from when she was a senator, has returned the most recent payment of $100,000 and, “like any other small business owner, I’ve reported this revenue on my tax returns.”
The Sun found that nine members of the 30-person board have contracts with hospitals under the school’s umbrella worth hundreds of thousands of dollars, with many being for goods and services like civil engineering and pest control.
Following an outcry from the public and leaders in Annapolis, two board members–John W. Dillon and Robert L. Pevenstein–resigned and four others–August J. Chiasera, Francis X. Kelly, James A. Soltesz and Walter A. Tilley, Jr.–took a voluntary leave of absence.
Gov. Larry Hogan, Senate President Thomas V. “Mike” Miller and House Speaker Michael Busch have all condemned the business deals. Busch sits on the board, and Miller has a seat that he’s delegated to Nancy King (D-Montgomery County).
Busch on Wednesday announced his intentions to introduce a bill to reform the medical network’s board, a companion to Carter’s legislation.
“UMMS cannot regain the public’s trust without a full accounting,” Busch said in a statement. “I’d like to thank Senator Carter for her efforts to bring these ethical lapses and misuse of funds to light. I hope we will work collaboratively, along with the Senate President and the Governor, to quickly address these issues.”
This story has been updated.