Columbia businessman J.P. Grant said Wednesday his company cut a check for $100,000 to then-Baltimore mayoral nominee Catherine Pugh’s Healthy Holly LLC in October 2016. He said he received a copy of one book but no documentation of how his money would be used.
The revelation brings to $800,000 the public accounting of how much money Pugh’s book company received from local entities since 2011.
Grant described the payment in an interview, saying, “I want to be honest.”
Grant said he had forgotten about the arrangement until Friday, when he had an assistant check the records of the financial company he runs, Grant Capital Management. He said he subsequently recalled meeting with Pugh and agreeing to pay $100,000 to support what she had described as an effort to distribute the books to schoolchildren.
Grant’s firm has long done business with the city. And in December last year, Pugh voted as a member of the city’s spending board to approve a contract with the company to finance capital projects. The value of the contract will depend on what the city uses it to buy.
Grant said all the business he has done with the city has been competitively bid. Asked if he gave money in expectation of something in return, Grant said, “It doesn’t work like that.”
In addition to the book payment, Grant has been a major campaign contributor to Pugh. Pugh has received $29,000 from Grant, his wife, his son, a company controlled by another son, and an executive at his company for her reelection fund. Grant contributed $6000 to her 2016 mayoral run.
His company donated $20,000 to her inaugural committee and gave the city’s official charitable foundation $85,000 to fund projects backed by Pugh to aid squeegee boys and teenage entrepreneurs, according to records obtained by The Baltimore Sun.
On Wednesday, Baltimore’s ethics board voted to open an investigation into whether Pugh’s book sales violated city ethics rules. The five-member board took the step after receiving a letter March 28 from Associated Black Charities, which described five groups that donated a total of about $87,000 to the organization to purchase 10,000 copies of the books.
One of those five was Ariel Investments, which gave $3,680 for 400 books. In February 2018, Pugh voted to approve a decision by the city employee retirement system to invest $40 million with Ariel Investments, LLC. The deal also included $272,000 in annual fees, according to Board of Estimates records.
Another of those five donors was Grant’s company, which contributed $14,000 in 2011. Grant said his firm’s records reflect the payment, but he hadn’t known it was used for the books.
Also Wednesday, the John Hopkins Health System said Pugh had asked a high-level employee to purchase Healthy Holly books when she was a state senator. The employee declined. Hopkins offered no other details of the encounter.
Spokeswoman Kim Hoppe said the health system and the university had reviewed purchasing records for both institutions and found no evidence of a purchase of Healthy Holly books or a donation to Pugh’s Healthy Holly LLC.
Pugh has taken a leave of absence amid the growing scandal over the book sales, citing health reasons. Since The Sun first reported last month that the University of Maryland Medical System paid her $500,000 for books while she was a member of its board, other entities have now confirmed additional book purchases or payments to Pugh’s company.
Steven D. Silverman, Pugh’s attorney, has said her book sales are under investigation by the Maryland State Prosecutor. Silverman did not respond to a request for comment on the payment Grant said he made.
Pugh initially said that UMMS was the only buyer of her self-published books, and she produced records documenting the shipment of some 60,000 copies for which she was paid by the medical system.
Then health insurer Kaiser Permanente and Associated Black Charities said this week that they bought roughly 30,000 copies, paying Pugh a total of nearly $200,000. Silverman did not dispute the sales, but said those organizations had not purchased books UMMS had paid for already. He declined to provide documentation of additional printings.
Pugh voted in 2017 to approve a $48 million contract for Kaiser Permanente to provide insurance to city employees. Associated Black Charities has a deal with the city to manage a $13 million youth fund.
Council President Bernard C. “Jack” Young, who is serving as acting mayor during Pugh’s absence, has launched a review of major contracts awarded in the past 90 days, his office said Wednesday.
It’s not clear how Pugh’s company, Healthy Holly LLC, used the money from Grant.
Grant said he did not have a contract or ask for records to show that books were produced and distributed.
“There was no contract. There was no nothing,” he said. At the meeting where he agreed to make the payment, Grant said Pugh gave him a single copy of one of the books in the series.
Grant recalled that Pugh described having copies of the books printed annually and distributed to schoolchildren. He said he asked her how many and she gave a number, but he doesn’t recall what it was. After hearing about the program and its scale, he agreed to contribute $100,000 from his company’s account.
Grant said he thought the books, which feature a young girl who promotes exercise and good diet, could help children from communities hit by the obesity epidemic.
“I thought I was doing something good,” he said.
In 2012, Grant stepped in to rescue the struggling Baltimore Grand Prix, a project promoted by then Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake. He ran the downtown race for two years before organizers cancelled future races, citing scheduling problems.
At the time of Grant’s company’s payment to Healthy Holly LLC, Pugh was a state senator but had already won the Democratic primary to become mayor of Baltimore — a victory that all but assured her the office.
Grant had been a supporter of Pugh’s predecessor Rawlings-Blake. But when she chose not to seek a second term, Grant backed Pugh.
“I thought she was the best option for the city,” he said. “She brought a certain gravitas to the city, a certain energy to change things.”
Grant wouldn’t say whether he regretted that support or offer an opinion on whether Pugh should resign.