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Baltimore Mayor Pugh apologizes for 'Healthy Holly' deal but admits some books being delivered only now

Mayor Catherine Pugh apologized Thursday for upsetting the people of Baltimore over a book deal with the University of Maryland Medical System, as she for the first time produced evidence that 60,000 of her “Healthy Holly” children’s books have been printed and distributed.

But she also said that 20,000 books for which she was paid $100,000 in 2017 were “delayed” and are only now being shipped.

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

Nonetheless, the medical system paid her another $100,000 last year for an additional 20,000 books, she and the medical system have said. Pugh repeated Thursday that those books have not been finished, and she has returned the $100,000 payment to UMMS.

“In hindsight, this arrangement with the University of Maryland Medical System was a regrettable mistake,” Pugh said at an evening news conference at City Hall.

Pugh provided paperwork to show that she had printed three batches of about 20,000 books each for city schoolchildren. The mayor said she had intended to provide the fourth batch early in 2017. She gave no explanation for the delay, but said they are on the way now.

“The shipment of these books to Baltimore City Public Schools is in the process of completion,” she said. “There was no deadline to ship those books.”

Pugh, who was just released from Johns Hopkins Hospital after a bout of pneumonia, looked tired as she addressed the turmoil that has engulfed her administration and the medical system over the past two weeks. The mayor and two other UMMS board members have resigned, while four others and medical system CEO Robert Chrencik have been placed on temporary leave after The Baltimore Sun published articles detailing multiple deals worth tens of millions of dollars between board members and the medical system.

“I am deeply sorry for any lack of confidence or disappointment that this initiative may have caused among Baltimore city residents, friends and colleagues,” Pugh said.

The mayor had previously called the reports about her book deal a “witch hunt” and said she had properly reported the income on her taxes. She has declined to release copies of her personal and business taxes filed with the state and federal government.

Pugh’s office had pledged she would take questions at the news conference, but she said Thursday she had been advised by an attorney not to.

She has hired a well known criminal defense attorney, Steven D. Silverman, in connection with the book controversy. UMMS has said it has arranged for an independent review of her sales and other insider deals with board members. A former investigator for the Maryland State Prosecutor has filed a complaint with that office asking it to investigate the mayor’s failure to disclose the book sales on her General Assembly ethics forms while she was a state senator.

Pugh said she was holding the press conference against a doctor’s orders, and she used a microphone to amplify her soft voice, something she does not typically do when addressing reporters at City Hall.

Just before the news conference began, a table behind the mayor’s podium was swathed in black fabric. An aide removed the shroud to reveal copies of “Healthy Holly” books, baby clothes and accessories, and the documents accounting for shipments of books. The mayor made an unexpected digression when she described plans to expand the “Healthy Holly” brand to baby clothes and accessories. She held up bibs, clothing and a baby blanket.

The mayor said the “Healthy Holly” books and apparel were part of an initiative aimed at encouraging children to exercise more.

Pugh produced paperwork showing that the first batch of 20,020 books was shipped to the school system in June 2011. An additional 2,090 books were delivered to Pugh at 2901 Druid Park Drive Suite 200C, the former address of her legislative office.

The records she produced also show that 18,600 copies of a second “Healthy Holly” book were shipped to the school system’s North Avenue headquarters in March 2013. An additional 1,500 were shipped to Pugh at the campaign office address.

And, in 2015, her records show that 19,500 copies of a third “Healthy Holly” book were shipped to the school system and 1,500 to the campaign address.

Pugh for the first time provided information about the printer of the books. Reached after the news conference, Joseph Cohen, vice president of Kromar Printing Ltd. in Winnipeg, Canada, said his company published three batches of 20,000 “Healthy Holly” books.

“I can confirm they were done. They were ordered. They were produced, and they were delivered,” Cohen said.

He said the company had not been asked to print a fourth batch.

Cohen estimated his company was paid about $13,000, including shipping, for each print run of 20,000 books, but said he could not access company records until Friday. The medical system paid Pugh $100,000 for each order of 20,000 books.

Baltimore school system officials have previously said they could recall one shipment of books sometime between 2011 and 2013. Anne Fullerton, a city schools spokeswoman, said Thursday that the school system “has not located documentation of receipt of books.”

“The shipping manifests provided today by Mayor Pugh had not been shared with us previously,” Fullerton said. “We will review this new paperwork to determine if it may allow tracing shipments beyond the one [shipment] staff members recall receiving.”

Officials have stressed that the system never asked for the books, and said nearly 9,000 are in boxes in a warehouse on Pulaski Highway.

“I’m making arrangements to pick up” those books to make them available to students, Pugh said.

At the news conference, Pugh provided a Jan. 12, 2011 letter written by Jerry Wollman, chief administrative officer with the medical system, to the city school system’s then-chief academic officer, Sonja Santelises, who is now CEO of the district.

The letter said that UMMS was “donating” 20,000 copies of “Healthy Holly Exercising is Fun” as part of the medical system’s “community outreach” efforts. Wollman wrote that the books would be delivered in two 10,000-book installments.

Pugh, who had served on the medical system’s board since 2001, said Thursday that she brought her idea for the book to a fellow board member because it was part of their “shared mission” to educate city schoolchildren about exercise and healthful eating.

Pugh acknowledged — as did the medical system last week — that there was no contract for the deal. The medical system said that after it entered into the agreement in 2011, it paid Pugh for the books in five transactions in 2012, 2013, 2015, 2017 and 2018.

For most of that period, she was a member of the state Senate, serving on the powerful Senate Finance committee that oversaw many issues related to UMMS. But she had never reported the earnings on her annual General Assembly financial disclosure forms. She became mayor in December 2016.

Pugh has previously said the books were distributed to schools and daycare centers. Numerous other public and private schools and daycare organizations said they did not recall ever receiving copies.

“I apologize that I’ve done something to upset the people, the people of Baltimore,” the mayor said during the 20-minute news conference. “I do hope that we find out from the school system where the rest of the books are.”

Baltimore Sun reporters Liz Bowie, Luke Broadwater and Talia Richman contributed to this article.

iduncan@baltsun.com

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