The Slatest

Why Baltimore’s Mayor is Taking a Leave of Absence Over a Scandal Caused by Her Children’s Books

Catherine Pugh poses in front of an HBO background
Baltimore Mayor Catherine Pugh at the 2017 premiere of HBO Documentary “Baltimore Rising.”
Dave Kotinsky/Getty Images

Baltimore Mayor Catherine Pugh announced Monday afternoon that she will take an indefinite leave of absence, starting at midnight, as she faces a scandal over purchases of her self-published children’s books.

The scandal began last month when the Baltimore Sun reported that the University of Maryland Medical system paid Pugh $500,000 over six years, starting in 2012, for copies of her Healthy Holly books, which promote exercise and good diet to children, even though she served on the medical system’s board at the time (and had for the past 18 years). The optics of that no-bid deal look even worse because of lackluster follow-through: Officials for Baltimore schools—the intended recipients of the books—acknowledged that nearly 9,000 of 100,000 purchased copies were sitting, untouched, in a warehouse. The officials were unable to say how many of the books actually went to students. Pugh later admitted that another 20,000 copies had been “delayed” and were only just starting to be delivered to Baltimore schools.

Pugh initially remained unapologetic and labeled the calls for an investigation into the deal a “witch hunt.” But on Thursday, in a press conference, she apologized and called the deal a “regrettable mistake.” She resigned from the board and returned $100,000 in payments. Pugh, who failed to fully disclose the relationship on her ethics reports filed to the state, wasn’t alone in allegedly benefitting from her position. Eight other members of the 30-person board were found to have had contracts or other business dealings with the medical system, and two board members joined Pugh in resigning. Others were placed on leave, according to the Sun. The hospital system, while private, receives public funding.

The scandal grew on Monday, when the Sun reported that the health insurer Kaiser Permanente had also bought books from Pugh during a similar time period. From 2015 to 2018, Kaiser Permanente paid $114,000 to buy copies of Healthy Holly, according to the Sun. During that time, the company was also seeking a $48 million contract from the city to provide health insurance to city employees from 2018 to 2020—a contract the company secured in 2017, the year after Pugh was elected mayor. Pugh sits on and controls the city’s spending board. The Sun also reported Monday that another health provider for the city, CareFirst BlueCross Blue Shield, donated $14,500 in payments in 2011 and 2014 to a nonprofit called Associated Black Charities to have the charity purchase 2,000 copies of the Healthy Holly books. But it remains unclear whether these health providers purchased the books directly from Pugh or if UMMS resold a portion of its own stockpile. (Pugh has only acknowledged the UMMS sales.)

Pugh faced calls to resign on Monday, and Gov. Larry Hogan asked the office of the state prosecutor to launch a criminal investigation into the allegations.

Pugh’s office announced the leave of absence because of her recent hospitalization for pneumonia. “She’s been advised by her physicians that she needs to take time to recover and focus on her health,” the statement said.

City Council President Jack Young will take over as mayor while Pugh takes her leave of absence.