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How the mayor’s children’s books set off a scandal in Baltimore

The mayor resigned Thursday afternoon.

Mayor Catherine Pugh at a press conference explaining her book sales on March 28, 2019.
Amy Davis/Baltimore Sun/TNS via Getty Images

The political corruption scandal roiling Baltimore, which ended with the resignation of Mayor Catherine Pugh Thursday, all began with a children’s book.

After more than six weeks of controversy over possible corruption, Pugh’s lawyer announced her resignation at a press conference, which the now-former mayor did not attend. During it, her lawyer read a statement from Pugh in which she apologized for the harm she had caused.

“Baltimore deserves a mayor who can move our great city forward,” she wrote in the statement.

Pugh, who had served as the city’s mayor since 2016, was at the center of a controversy that started with the revelation in March that she’d sold her children’s books, the Healthy Holly series, to entities that have business deals with the city, including a $500,000 deal with the University of Maryland Medical System and a similar deal with health company Kaiser Permanente.

Pugh, who has been on leave since April 1, has made more than $800,000 from selling her self-published books, according to reporting from the Baltimore Sun.

Pugh says she “never intended to do anything that could not stand up to scrutiny.”

The book deals were under state investigation; an FBI raid of Pugh’s house and at least five other locations last week suggest a federal crime might have been committed as well. After the raid, Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan, a Republican, called on her to step down. The Baltimore City Council also asked for Pugh’s resignation.

Jack Young, who had been acting mayor during Pugh’s leave of absence, will now officially take Pugh’s place.

Companies and nonprofits in Baltimore paid six-figure sums for Pugh’s self-published children’s book, Healthy Holly

This all started with Healthy Holly, a children’s book about a young black girl who promotes self-improvement. Holly is the ideal kid: She exercises regularly and eats her veggie and fruits. She’s the main character of three books by Pugh: Healthy Holly: Exercising is Fun!, Healthy Holly: Fruits Come In Colors Like The Rainbow, and Healthy Holly: A Healthy Start for Herbie.

Pugh said she had the idea to write the series about a decade ago, when she was still a Democratic state senator, in order to encourage healthier lifestyles for children, according to the New York Times.

What might seem like an innocent project rapidly began to unravel after the Baltimore Sun reported that Pugh was making hundreds of thousands of dollars from sales of her books to people, companies, and charities that do business with the city.

Pugh, who was on the board of the University of Maryland Medical System, a private nonprofit that operates 13 hospitals and 150 other health facilities in Maryland, received $500,000 in a deal that was supposed to distribute the books in day care centers and school libraries.

Health care company Kaiser Permanente purchased about 20,000 copies for $114,000 between 2015 and 2018. During this period, the company was trying to negotiate a contract with the city’s spending panel to provide coverage to city employees. Subsequently, the panel approved a $48 million contract. The Baltimore Sun reported that the mayor did not recuse herself from the vote despite the apparent conflict of interest.

Charities and businesses in the city also reportedly paid tens of thousands of dollars for Healthy Holly books. Pugh’s book company, Healthy Holly LLC, was in charge of distributing the books to hospitals, school districts, and libraries. But it’s not clear if they actually showed up. Many copies of the books that racked up at least $800,000 in sales for Pugh can’t be found.

Pugh says she made about $1 per copy on the books, according to the Baltimore Sun (which still would have netted her quite a profit). But the Sun’s reporting suggests that she did much better than that and that her estimate of her expenses to print and distribute the books is too high.

The books, according to Washington Post book critic Carlos Lozada, who read them with his children after the scandal took off, aren’t exactly a narrative triumph. (A sample of the dialogue between Holly and her mother, according to Lozada: “Exercising is fun,” the mother tells Holly, who answers, “I will be healthy. I like having fun.”) But the appeal to buyers likely wasn’t the quality of the literature; it was the possibility to curry favor with the mayor.

Pugh didn’t initially disclose the income from Healthy Holly on the disclosure forms she had to file as a senator, according to the Baltimore Sun.

Despite a backlash, Pugh had refused to resign

It’s not yet clear if Pugh actually broke any laws, although she’s now under both state and federal investigation.

In the beginning, Pugh was defiant: During a press conference on March 28, the mayor apologized for doing “something to upset the people of Baltimore,” according to the Baltimore Business Journal, but denied any allegations of corruption. Still, Pugh resigned from the board of UMMS and returned $100,000 to the medical system.

The city, however, wasn’t ready to let her off the hook. All but one member of city council has signed a letter on April 8 asked for her resignation, which Pugh refused to offer at the time.

A few hours after the FBI raided her house, Gov. Larry Hogan also joined the many voices demanding for her resignation. In a statement on Twitter, he emphasized the need for a strong and responsible leader for Baltimore, while pointing out that Pugh was not the right fit.

Pugh had been out of the office since April 1, and acting Mayor Young had been filling her role. A statement from her office said she was recovering from pneumonia and didn’t mention any allegations regarding her book deals.

Pugh, who initially said she fully intended to return to her role as mayor, began to step back from her strident stance last week. On Friday, her lawyer said she was too emotionally and physically distraught to make any decisions and would decide the future once she became “lucid.” There was nothing else the city council could do beyond wait for her resignation, because there are no guidelines for impeachment in the Baltimore city charter.

This is the second time in a decade that a Baltimore mayor has faced corruption allegations: Mayor Shelia Dixon was forced to resign in 2010 after she was found guilty of embezzlement and theft. Unstable leadership has been a problem more broadly; the city has seen five different police chiefs in just the span of five years.

With public trust at a low, Pugh would have faced a rocky road if she had decided to return to her mayoral position. It seems she made the calculation that winning back citizens who were already wary of a volatile political scene wasn’t in the cards.

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