The Baltimore Sun won the Pulitzer Prize for local reporting Monday for the staff’s work uncovering the “Healthy Holly” book-publishing scheme that led to the resignation of Mayor Catherine Pugh and contributed to her federal conviction on fraud and other charges.
Pugh, who grossed more than $850,000 from no-bid contracts and double-selling of copies of her children’s books, was sentenced in February to three years in federal prison. The Sun’s investigation also prompted state leaders to reconstitute the board of the University of Maryland Medical System; its CEO and four other officials resigned.
In a video chat with newsroom staff, mostly working from home because of the coronavirus stay-at-home order, Baltimore Sun Media editor-in-chief and publisher Trif Alatzas lauded the group effort by the reporters, editors, audience and visuals staff.
“It was just an all-out effort — really, really great work by everybody, and I’m just glad to be a part of it,” Alatzas said from his square of the video chat to a staff that broke out in cheers watching the announcement of the prize winners.
And indeed, the 10 stories in The Sun’s entry carried eight bylines, representing a newsroom in which nearly everyone pitched in at some point.
“It was this magical time in the newsroom,” Alatzas said as staff members shared memories of chasing down the story as it spiraled in multiple directions.
They remembered searching for the books themselves, finding them in boxes in a school district warehouse and in a reporter’s basement, where she stashed them after receiving them while covering Pugh’s mayoral campaign. There were phone calls upon phone calls that revealed how extensively the scandal’s tentacles reached into the city’s power structure. And there was there was the lucky timing for one reporter who, while headed to City Hall on another matter, ran into the mayor’s lawyer, arriving with her resignation letter in hand.
The prize was particularly sweet because its category, local news, is “what The Sun is all about,” Alatzas said.
The Pulitzer judges awarded The Sun “for illuminating, impactful reporting on a lucrative, undisclosed financial relationship between the city’s mayor and the public hospital system she helped to oversee.”
It was a remarkable fall from grace for Pugh, who had called being mayor her dream job. And yet it started, said lead reporter Luke Broadwater, “the same way so many stories start.”
In other words, a tip that led to phone calls, searches of public records and shoe-leather reporting.
“Everyone just started rolling,” said Broadwater, who also celebrated his 40th birthday on Monday. "Everybody just kept pushing. There was always a new onion to peel.
“It was really quite a ride,” he said.
Editorial cartoonist Kevin “Kal” Kallaugher was a finalist this year in the editorial cartooning category, in a submission that spanned work for The Sun and other outlets.
This was the sixth time since 2015 that Baltimore Sun Media was a finalist for a Pulitzer, considered journalism’s highest prize. The Pulitzer board awarded the staff of the Capital Gazette a special citation in 2019 for its coverage of the June 2018 attack on its Annapolis offices that killed five colleagues.
Already this year, the Healthy Holly coverage had earned The Sun a George Polk Award for political reporting, a National Headliner Award for investigative reporting and the News Leaders Association’s Al Neuharth Breaking News Reporting Award.
The Sun initiated Pugh’s downfall in March 2019, when Broadwater revealed that about a third of the appointed members of the University of Maryland Medical System’s board had business deals worth hundreds of thousands of dollars with the hospital network.
Among them was Pugh, who had solicited UMMS to enter a no-bid contract to buy copies of her sloppily self-published book series. They aimed to promote exercise and nutrition through the family life of a young girl, Holly, and her brother, Herbie.
First as a state senator and continuing beyond her election as mayor in 2016, Pugh collected $500,000 from the medical system for 100,000 copies of the books but disclosed little of the earnings. She took in over $300,000 more from other entities and individuals, portraying her sales of the books for distribution to Baltimore children as a way the organizations could give to the community.
In total, she netted more than $850,000, prosecutors said. At the same time, she failed to print thousands of copies, double-sold thousands more and took many others for self-promotion, according to prosecutors. Investigators also uncovered that she laundered illegal campaign contributions and failed to pay taxes on her book income.
At the sentencing, U.S. District Judge Deborah K. Chasanow described Pugh’s crimes as “astounding” and said she took advantage of a career spent doing good works to mislead organizations that paid for books.
Since The Sun uncovered the misconduct, state and local leaders have instituted reforms requiring more transparency from lawmakers.
State lawmakers last year mandated several reforms at the University of Maryland Medical System, including requiring the resignations of all board members and mandating a state audit that found the hospital system had paid $115 million to 27 board members and their businesses. The scandal led to the resignation of CEO Robert A. Chrencik and four other executives.
Monday’s announcement was an unusual one for the 103-year-old Pulitzer organization. Typically, the Pulitzer board announces the winners on an April afternoon at Columbia University’s School of Journalism, and journalists around the country gather in their newsrooms to find out the winners via livestreaming.
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This year, the announcement was delayed two weeks because of the coronavirus pandemic. Pulitzer Prize Administrator Dana Canedy announced the winners Monday via remote video feed from her home. Sun journalists, working out of their home offices and basements, learned of their win virtually, watching together via a video conference.
The announcement was good news amid the pandemic, which has wreaked financial havoc on the newspaper industry, among many others, as plummeting advertising led to pay cuts and furloughs at The Sun and other news outlets.
But the prize shows that local journalism is more important than ever, Broadwater said.
“If we’re not keeping eyes on the politicians and the powerful,” he said, “then who is?”
The Pultizers were first given in 1917, “less than a year before the 1918 outbreak of the Spanish Flu pandemic,” Canedy noted during the Monday announcement.
Since then, the 183-year-old Sun has won 16 Pulitzer Prizes, most recently in 2003 for medical reporter Diana K. Sugg’s beat reporting. Sugg is now a senior content editor for The Sun.
The Sun was a finalist in two categories, breaking news and editorial writing, in 2016 for its coverage and commentary of the rioting that followed the police-custody death of Freddie Gray.