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Baltimore Mayor Pugh to take leave of absence in midst of 'Healthy Holly' book controversy

Baltimore Mayor Catherine Pugh, facing a call by Gov. Larry Hogan for a criminal investigation into the book deal that paid her hundreds of thousands of dollars, announced Monday that she will take an indefinite leave of absence because of her health.

The Democratic mayor’s office issued a statement Monday saying she had been advised by her doctors to take time to recover from a bout of pneumonia that hospitalized her for five days last week.

Coverage of University of Maryland Medical Center board deals and Mayor Pugh's 'Healthy Holly' books »

“With the mayor’s health deteriorating, she feels as though she is unable to fulfill her obligations as mayor of Baltimore city,” the statement read in part. “To that end, Mayor Pugh will be taking an indefinite leave of absence to recuperate from this serious illness.”

The statement did not address the scandal over the books — a series she authored featuring a young girl named Healthy Holly aimed at promoting exercise and good diet — that has quickly overtaken the mayor. A no-bid deal with the University of Maryland Medical System was first reported by The Baltimore Sun last month.

City Solicitor Andre Davis confirmed Pugh’s leave is to start at midnight and that the mayor will continue to be paid her $185,000 annual salary.

Council President Bernard C. “Jack” Young, also a Democrat, will take over temporarily as mayor. Young said in an interview that he was “heartbroken” by the mayor’s deteriorating health and that his first aim was to ensure stability in the city he will now lead.

“People shouldn’t notice any difference,” Young said. He said he will meet with city agency leaders, work crews and police officers because “I want to assure them that the city is going to be in good hands until the mayor recovers.”

Baltimore’s charter specifies that the City Council president takes on the mayor's responsibilities if she is temporarily unable to fulfill them: “In case of, and during, sickness, temporary disqualification or necessary absence of the mayor, the president of the City Council shall be ex officio mayor of the city,” the charter reads.

Under the deal with the medical system, UMMS paid Pugh $500,000 for copies of the books while she served on its board. UMMS paid $100,000 in each of five transactions in 2012, 2013, 2015, 2017 and 2018 to purchase 20,000 copies of her self-published books at $5 per book. Pugh was among nine members of the 30-person UMMS board that had contracts or other business deals with the medical system. Pugh and two other board members have resigned. Several others were placed on leave.

On Monday, The Sun reported that health insurer Kaiser Permanente also paid Pugh more than $100,000 to purchase copies of her books from 2015 to 2018. In September 2017, the city’s spending board, which Pugh sits on and controls, awarded Kaiser a $48 million contract to provide health insurance to city employees from 2018 through 2020, with options to renew.

After The Sun reported the Kaiser purchase, the Republican governor sent a letter to the office of the state prosecutor to begin a criminal investigation of the allegations against Pugh.

“These are deeply disturbing allegations,” Hogan wrote to state prosecutor Emmet Davitt. “I am particularly concerned about the UMMS sale because it has significant continuing ties with the state and receives very substantial public funding.”

Davitt said Monday that his office never comments on whether it is conducting an investigation. A retired investigator with the office filed a complaint alleging Pugh’s failure to disclose the UMMS deal on state ethics forms could amount to perjury or the common law offense of misconduct in office.

Later Monday, Associated Black Charities confirmed that it had also spent $80,000 to buy 10,000 copies of Pugh’s books, raising the funds from third parties.

Baltimore City Council members Brandon Scott, Shannon Sneed and Kristerfer Burnett said they backed the governor’s call for an investigation. Two elected Democrats went further: State Comptroller Peter Franchot and City Councilman Zeke Cohen called on Pugh to resign.

Councilwoman Mary Pat Clarke said it was right for Pugh to step aside for now.

“It’s a tsunami here and we’re drowning,” Clarke said. “We need to survive as a city and to thrive.”

While Pugh and Young cast the leave as a temporary step, Councilman Ryan Dorsey said he does not expect Pugh to return to office.

“The city has been dysfunctional under this mayor’s leadership and while it seems this is being presented as a temporary change, I’m confident this is the direction things will go permanently and the city will be better off under the leadership of Mayor Young,” Dorsey said.

Dorsey described the scene Monday in the City Council president’s office — which are two floors above the mayor’s suite — as one of “calm fury” as Young’s relatively small staff prepared to take on the vastly greater responsibilities of the mayor.

Council Vice President Sharon Middleton will assume Young’s role chairing council meetings and meetings of the city’s spending board. Young and Middleton will retain their current salaries: Young makes $122,000; Middleton is paid $79,000.

After the book deal was first reported, Pugh resigned her seat on the UMMS board and handed back $100,000 of the book payments, but remained defiant. She issued a statement saying she was proud of the books and the message they were aimed at sharing, and she called inquiries into the UMMS deal a “witch hunt.”

But Thursday, she held a news conference at City Hall apologizing for it.

“In hindsight, this arrangement with the University of Maryland Medical System was a regrettable mistake,” she said.

At the news conference, she made no mention of other buyers of the books. She also acknowledged that 20,000 books for which UMMS paid her $100,000 in fiscal 2017 had been “delayed” and were only now being produced.

Pugh, a veteran of almost two decades in Baltimore politics, secured the mayoralty by winning the 2016 Democratic primary, taking 37 percent of the vote to defeat a dozen other hopefuls.

Pugh’s chief rival in that election was former Mayor Sheila Dixon, who sought her old job back after being forced to resign after being convicted of embezzling gift cards for the poor.

Pugh, 69, is from Pennsylvania and came to Baltimore to attend Morgan State University. She was elected to office as a member of the City Council in 1999, serving until 2004. She was appointed to a seat in the House of Delegates in 2005. In 2006, she won a state Senate seat. She rose to the post of Senate majority leader in 2015. She was sworn in as Baltimore’s mayor in December 2016.

Pugh is a year away from a Democratic primary that would likely decide her re-election and was raising money to mount a campaign for a second term.

Young said Monday that he would not run for mayor in 2020 and would ask voters instead to re-elect him council president.

“I am interested in being president of City Council,” Young said. “I thought, at one time, the mayor’s office was something I wanted. But I love being City Council president. That job is one of the best jobs you can have in city government.”

Baltimore Sun reporter Luke Broadwater contributed to this article.

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