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Maryland State Prosecutor Opens Investigation Into Pugh’s “Healthy Holly” Book Sales

Patrick Semansky/AP

After urging from Governor Larry Hogan and a slew of Baltimore elected officials, Maryland’s Office of the State Prosecutor has opened an investigation into Mayor Catherine Pugh’s "Healthy Holly" book sales.

The governor formally asked for the investigation on Monday, calling the sales "deeply disturbing allegations" in a letter to state prosecutor Emmet Davitt. On Tuesday, Pugh's lawyer confirmed to the Baltimore Sun that the office has opened an investigation.

Last month, the Sun reported that the mayor, then a state senator, struck up a no-bid children's book deal with the University of Maryland Medical System while she was on the organization’s board.

Over a few years, the system paid the first-term Democrat $500,000 for 100,000 copies of her "Healthy Holly" books. Since the apparent self-dealing has come to light, Pugh resigned from the board and called the arrangement with UMMS "a regrettable mistake."

The Sun has also reported that Kaiser Permanente paid the mayor more than $100,000 for 20,000 copies of "Healthy Holly" books from 2015 to 2018 -- a time when the health provider was pursuing a large contract to cover city employees’ health benefits.

The Associated Black Charities has also acknowledged it paid nearly $80,000 for 10,000 copies of the Healthy Holly books.

"A preliminary review of ABC records reflects that Associated Black Charities received 4,500 copies of the 10,000 Healthy Holly books purchased for direct distribution to African-American children," ABC said in a Monday press statement issued to WYPR. "They further reflect that of the 4,500 books received, 4,100 were distributed to child care centers and youth-serving organizations in Baltimore and on the Eastern Shore of Maryland. Of the books distributed, 3,000 included a bookmark urging parents to read to their children and to thank the author Catherine Pugh and the donors. Approximately 400 books were water-damaged and were not delivered and not replaced. Healthy Holly, LLC retained the responsibility to directly distribute the remaining 5,500 books paid for by donors."

Between 2011 and 2016, ABC says five organizations donated $87,180 to pay for the books. ABC retained a gross sum of $9,552, which was used for general support throughout the organization.

The General Assembly-created state auto insurance fund, the Maryland Automobile Insurance Fund, told the Sun it gave "Healthy Holly LLC" a $7,500 donation in 2012.

On Monday, Pugh began a temporary leave of absence. Her office didn't cite the scandal, but a recent bout with pneumonia.

"At this time, with the Mayor's health deteriorating, she feels as though she is unable to fulfill her obligations as Mayor of Baltimore City," her office's statement read. "To that end, Mayor Pugh will be taking an indefinite leave of absence to recuperate from this serious illness."  

Ex officio mayor Jack Young, who has not clarified whether or not he thinks Pugh should resign, says he's looking forward to the Office of the State Prosecutor's investigation results.

"I want them to continue to do their work while I do the work of moving the city forward," he said during a Tuesday press conference.

The Baltimore City Charter says that Young, the President of the City Council, can fill in for the mayor as long as needed.

Other City Council members, including Zeke Cohen and Ryan Dorsey, have called for Pugh’s resignation, as has State Comptroller Peter Franchot.

Emily Sullivan is a city hall reporter at WYPR, where she covers all things Baltimore politics. She joined WYPR after reporting for NPR’s national airwaves. There, she was a reporter for NPR’s news desk, business desk and presidential conflicts of interest team. Sullivan won a national Edward R. Murrow Award for an investigation into a Trump golf course's finances alongside members of the Embedded team. She has also won awards from the Chesapeake Associated Press Broadcasters Association for her use of sound and feature stories. She has provided news analysis on 1A, The Takeaway, Here & Now and All Things Considered.