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'Healthy Holly' scandal: Sun reporters discuss their coverage in Reddit AMA

Baltimore Sun reporters Doug Donovan, Luke Broadwater, Talia Richman and Liz Bowie spent a little over an hour Wednesday answering Reddit users’ questions about Baltimore Mayor Catherine Pugh and her “Healthy Holly” books.

Here’s a sampling of the questions and answers.

Read more "Healthy Holly" coverage »

What was the first bit of information that started this investigation?

Sen. Jill P. Carter contacted me, saying she had a complaint from a minority contractor in her district about getting work with UMMS. She said the medical system wasn't answering her questions. I told her I would look into it. I reached out to UMMS asking questions about their contracting practices with board members and they declined to provide the information I was seeking. That sparked me digging into more. —Luke Broadwater

Has the Pugh administration been open to working with the Sun in any way during this scandal? And are items you have reported on that you believe are important but no one seems to be focusing on?

Acting Mayor Jack Young and his team which includes almost all of the Pugh administration, except for those who have resigned, are answering questions about the functions of city government. —Luke Broadwater

One of the questions we still have is whether the books were ever double-sold. There were books delivered to the school system, but seemed to disappear off the loading dock. We have not been able to figure what happened to them or where they ended up. We only have receipts showing 60,000 books were printed — but many, many more books were sold. —Liz Bowie

From the standpoint of criminal investigation, is there anything illegal about accepting payment for books if they were never printed? Were the UMMS payments drawn from a public purse? Or is the main investigation focusing on disclosures and perjury?

While we don't know exactly what the criminal investigation is pursuing, we do know that Gov. Larry Hogan specifically requested the State Prosecutor look into the $500,000 sale of books from the mayor to UMMS. There are at least a couple of avenues the investigation could take, including looking into whether sworn ethics forms included full disclosure; and whether all taxes were paid on the mayor's business interests. Once an investigation starts, it can pursue multiple angles. But, again, the governor's request was specifically to look at UMMS and Pugh.

Thiru Vignarajah, a prosecutor who is running against the mayor, offered this analysis on different avenues an investigation could pursue. —Luke Broadwater

Do you have any idea whether the FBI would be involved or if someone has the authority to request an FBI investigation? They wouldn’t have the bias that the local or state prosecutors would have regarding a Baltimore politician.

Not sure about the FBI's involvement, if any. I would say that the state prosecutor's office has disproven allegations of political favoritism. You've had Republican appointed prosecutors convict Republican officials and Democratic appointed prosecutors who have convicted Democratic officials. —Doug Donovan

What happened with the Jeep full of Healthy Holly boxes that Ian Duncan found outside the mayor’s house... Did you tail the vehicle? Also, why won’t BCPS let you see the 8,700 copies locked in the warehouse... where would those orders come from?

The car didn't move while Ian was at the house. The Baltimore City Public Schools System has not let us into the warehouse, saying "it's not set up or staffed for visitors."

The books in the warehouse, "Healthy Holly: Fruits Come in Colors Like the Rainbow," were sent there in 2015. We've seen the receipts showing that this batch of books was printed and sent to North Avenue in August 2015.

There were 19,500 copies sent to city schools headquarters and 1,500 copies sent to Pugh’s Baltimore office. Of those books, nearly 9,000 are left in that warehouse.

District staff recall Pugh representatives coming to retrieve the books from the warehouse on several occasions over the next three years — though they have no documentation showing when or how many were taken. —Talia Richman

Has anyone followed up on Comptroller Joan Pratt's potential connections with any of these dealings?

Pratt has been referring questions to city solicitor Andre Davis. We do know that Pratt and Pugh are co-owners of a business. We don't have any information at this point showing there's anything wrong with that business — but we plan to look into all connections to the mayor's private business interests. — Luke Broadwater

What were you reactions from the Last Week Tonight segment two weeks ago?

As much as its a humor show, John Oliver is one of the late nights hosts who takes local government seriously and demands high standards for ethics. —Luke Broadwater

What's the closest historical parallel to Healthy Holly in Baltimore politics? How did it turn out?

There's a new book, Eyes of Justice by a former state public corruption investigator that gives a great history of public corruption in Maryland. Here are two stories (one, two) I wrote about the book and some of the investigations. —Doug Donovan

Why haven't we seen more coverage of former state senator Francis Kelly and his role on the UMMS board while Kelly and Associates were receiving contracts?

We've reported extensively on Kelly and the other board members with conflicts of interest as you can see here, here and here.

But we are continuing to pursue multiple angles on this story. — Talia Richman

Have you guys had any comments from Pugh this week? Is she still very ill? Has she made any comments on the book scandal?

We have tried in the past week to respect her privacy and not bother her as she recovers from pneumonia. She hasn't answered reporters' questions since her press conference last month. So we expect her spokespeople to be the ones to respond to our continued questioning. —Liz Bowie

Last I heard from her spokesman yesterday she's still sick with pneumonia. —Ian Duncan

What do you think will happen to Pugh and her businesses long term?

Never underestimate the public's capacity for forgiveness when honestly sought. —Luke Broadwater

Sheila Dixon ran again. —Talia Richman

I'm a little sad there is not more light being shed on UMMS President Robert A. Chrencik who is on Leave With Pay during the investigation.

Several lawmakers have questioned why he is on paid leave. And we are doing more reporting into the role he played in this situation. —Luke Broadwater

After Dixon's scandal was their an effort made to introduce a bill/charter that would allow city hall to vote out a Mayor? If so, what happened?

There was no effort that we can recall. There has been attempts to reform the Board of Estimates, the five member panel that approves all major spending by city government. The mayor controls the majority of three seats on that board. Some have wanted to balance out the power on that board. —Doug Donovan

If Pugh doesn't step down, what does this mean going forward for the city?

At the very least, it just means Jack Young continues on as acting mayor, while Pugh is on leave. I think if she attempts to return to office, we will see a political maelstrom, because the entire City Council and all Baltimore lawmakers in the House of Delegates and the Greater Baltimore Committee have called on her to resign. —Luke Broadwater

Do you think these books are good for kids?

I'm no book reviewer, but we've interviewed several people who specialize in children's books. Here's what one recognized figure in the publishing world said:

Pugh’s books are “more pedantic than I generally like — or I think kids like. Kids prefer stories with compelling characters, rich language, emotional appeal, and an entertaining story arc. I don't see those elements in this particular book."

She also noticed lots of typos and misspellings, which she said are pretty typical of self-published books. We also know that literary agents who work on children’s books describe the sales numbers as eye-popping, especially for a self-published author. Selling that many books, they say, is a huge deal. For some context, the first U.S. print run of “Harry Potter and The Sorcerer’s Stone” was for 50,000 copies. Pugh sold more than 100,000 books to various entities. —Talia Richman

How does one get into investigative journalism? Do you have to be better writer or better investigator or equal?

All great beat reporting is "investigative reporting." At least that's how we were taught at The Baltimore Sun. While many papers, including The Sun, have investigative "teams," most of the work on the Healthy Holly scandal was done by beat reporters who all have great investigative skills.

In my case, after working the City Hall beat hard with investigative pieces about Mayor Dixon, I was burned out and asked to join the investigative team, and they let me. It's best to have skills in both reporting and writing, but good writing only comes from exhaustive reporting. I'd rather have a reporter who struggles with writing but who leaves no stones unturned. —Doug Donovan

In addition to following the threads of Healthy Holly, does your team have plans to comb through similar records of elected officials, public/private boards and associated LLCs to see if similar things might be happening in the government of neighboring counties?

Yes, and if you have any specific info we should know about, please email me at lbroadwater@baltsun.com. —Luke Broadwater

Does anyone know exactly how many of these books exist?

In 2011, Kromar Printing Ltd. in Winnipeg, Canada, billed Mayor Catherine Pugh for $13,480 for both printing and shipping the first book. Two years later, the company billed her $14,325 for printing the second title. The 2015 bill for the third title was the largest, at $15,275.

Altogether, it cost Pugh roughly $43,000 to print about 60,000 books and have them shipped to Baltimore. We've seen these printing receipts only for these books — but Pugh's lawyer has assured us more were printed. There must have been some copies of the fourth book printed because we've seen photos of them being handed out at event. We just haven't gotten the receipts yet. —Talia Richman

If someone wanted a copy of healthy holly for themselves, is it possible to get one other than an overpriced eBay auction?

The Book Thing's owner has told us they've received a few copies. —Talia Richman

While I truly respect and appreciate your work on this important story, weren't these disclosures available for years for anyone willing to look for them?

This is correct. The financial disclosure forms from UMMS were indeed filed with the Health Services Cost Review Commission, but not with the State Ethics Commission and not online. Few people reviewed them, including reporters and politicians. And certain deals we know were kept secret from the majority of the UMMS board. As a reporter, you don't know what you don't know. And I can say many people were surprised to learn what was contained in the forms after we filed our first report. —Luke Broadwater

Is exercising actually fun?

Yes. —Liz Bowie

No. —Talia Richman

Yes. —Luke Broadwater

I love it when I do it, which is infrequently. Not as much as I love eating ice cream, though." —Doug Donovan

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