BALTIMORE (AP) — Baltimore's mayor on Thursday described a lucrative arrangement to sell her self-published children's books to a university-based health care system as a "regrettable mistake" and offered apologies for "any lack of confidence or disappointment" citizens and colleagues may be feeling.
At a City Hall news conference, Mayor Catherine Pugh provided five pages of paperwork, asserting they detail production and various deliveries of her "Healthy Holly" books to Baltimore's school system. She also provided a copy of a January 2011 letter to the district's chief academic officer describing a donation of 20,000 copies of "Health Holly: Exercising is Fun!"
Since 2011, Pugh received $500,000 selling her illustrated paperback series to the University of Maryland Medical System, a $4 billion hospital network. Pugh sat on the medical system's board of directors for about 18 years.
"I am deeply sorry for any lack of confidence or disappointment which this initiative may have caused any Baltimore City residents and colleagues. In hindsight, this arrangement with the University of Maryland Medical System was a regrettable mistake," she said, speaking in a weakened voice as she recovers from what spokespeople called a bout of pneumonia.
One of Maryland's largest private employers, the UMMS paid Pugh half-a-million dollars for 100,000 copies of her roughly 20-page books, arguably making her among the world's most successful self-published authors. There was no contract behind the deal and the hospital network described some of the purchases as "grants" in federal filings. Pugh — who once sat on a state Senate committee that funded the major health network before becoming mayor in 2016 — served on the system's board since 2001.
Pugh's slim "Healthy Holly" books, sharing tips on nutrition and exercise, were meant to be distributed to schools and daycares. But the school district has described her hard-to-find books as "unsolicited" donations after The Baltimore Sun recently exposed Pugh's arrangements with UMMS. Fewer than 9,000 copies were found collecting dust in a district warehouse. It's unclear where tens of thousands of other copies are.
Pugh suggested Thursday that it was up to the city's school district to clear up the confusion.
"I do hope that we find out from the school system where the rest of those books are," she said.
During the evening press conference, Pugh also held up cloth bibs, onesies and other baby items with words like "jump" and "play" emblazoned on them that she says were intended to be part of her campaign to teach youngsters and families about health. She said her "Healthy Holly" initiative was "never about books" but was "about a lifestyle."
She said her lawyer advised her not to take any questions since the arrangement with UMMS is now being investigated. A retired state corruption investigator has filed a complaint against Pugh with the state prosecutor's office.
Pugh choked up at the end of her presentation and departed the conference room, appearing drained as reporters yelled out questions.
A Democrat, Pugh faces a 2020 Democratic primary for re-election in a city dominated by her party's political machine.
Criticism of UMMS and of Pugh has lately been intense. The Washington Post's editorial board recently asserted the UMMS had a "get-rich-quick program" for many of its board members, with Pugh's involvement painted as an egregious case of "political sleaze."
In recent days, Pugh resigned from the volunteer UMMS board and returned her most recent payment of $100,000. She also amended years of financial disclosure forms from her state Senate days.
Pugh is not the only board member who received significant financial compensation from UMMS. About one-third of the UMMS board members received compensation through the medical system's arrangements with their businesses, a revelation that Gov. Larry Hogan has called "appalling."
Two other members of the board have also resigned, and four others went on voluntary leave while the system reviews governance practices. The president and CEO of the University of Maryland Medical System has recently been sent on a temporary leave of absence.
Maryland Comptroller Peter Franchot says an independent audit is urgent to understand how many "self-dealing" arrangements there have been over the years.
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