Mayor Catherine Pugh’s decision to step down temporarily after her recent hospitalization for pneumonia and amid the mounting Healthy Holly scandal was the right and perhaps inevitable decision. The Sun’s reporting about her outside business dealings raises far too many questions that she is thus far unable or unwilling to answer for her to lead the city effectively. We certainly hope that she makes a speedy recovery from her illness, but her health is not the only reason she needs to step aside.
It is now clear that her Thursday press conference about her Healthy Holly books wasn’t an exercise in coming clean about her questionable business activities, it was an effort to lull the public with half-truths. That’s the only conclusion we can draw after the The Sun’s report that she sold another 20,000 copies of her books to Kaiser Permanente, a health insurer that does business with the city and was seeking a new contract during the period when some of the sales were made. Whatever willingness the public had to give her the benefit of the doubt is now long gone.
This latest revelation is so damaging because it proves that Ms. Pugh has been misleading the public about the extent of her business all along. Not once has she acknowledged selling books to anyone other than the University of Maryland Medical System, which paid her $500,000 for 100,000 copies of the books while she served on its board (40,000 of which apparently were never printed). She sought to bolster her account of her Healthy Holly LLC business by producing invoices showing the printing and shipment of books under her deal with UMMS to the city schools. But none of the documentation begins to explain how Kaiser got another 20,000 copies. Nor does it explain how Associated Black Charities got 2,000 Healthy Holly books, paid for by donations from CareFirst BlueCross BlueShield.
Ms. Pugh’s explanation has been shifting since The Sun first broke this story, and the numbers still don’t add up. The manifests Ms. Pugh provided document the shipment of approximately 60,000 copies of Healthy Holly books to the city school system, most of which the schools can’t account for. They also show that a few thousand copies of the books were shipped directly to Ms. Pugh, which she said she kept to distribute when she visited schools — but those copies were not nearly enough to fill the Kaiser orders much less to account for those CareFirst paid Associated Black Charities to buy. Were more batches of the books produced by some other printer? Or did she sell some of the books more than once?
Mayor Pugh has insisted that she documented her Healthy Holly business appropriately on her individual and business tax forms and paid what was due. We certainly hope that’s true. But after discovering that she was far less than forthcoming in her previous assurances, we are not willing to take her word for it, and we doubt most city residents are either.
Ms. Pugh left her news conference Thursday without answering any questions on the advice of her personal attorney. We assume that is in anticipation of the possibility that state or federal prosecutors might investigate the mayor’s Healthy Holly business — something that’s more likely now that Gov. Larry Hogan has called on the state prosecutor to do so. But Mayor Pugh needs to understand that her leadership of the city is on the line. Comptroller Peter Franchot, Del. Kathy Szeliga and former deputy attorney general Thiru Vignarajah said she should resign after the latest revelations. That call had not become widespread in the city, but it might only have been a matter of time if the mayor had not stepped aside of her own accord.
It’s far from an ideal circumstance for City Council President Bernard C. “Jack” Young to assume the title of acting mayor amid the many urgent problems Baltimore faces and with so little time to prepare for the role, but it is necessary. Without complete, transparent answers to the questions surrounding Healthy Holly, Mayor Pugh will not be able to give Baltimore the leadership it needs. That’s the last thing Baltimore can afford. Mayor Pugh should not return to office until and unless she can put the Healthy Holly controversy to rest.
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