We appreciate Mayor Catherine Pugh’s apology for the ‘Healthy Holly’ scandal that has embroiled her administration, and her admission that entering into six-figure publishing deals with the University of Maryland Medical System while she served on its board was a mistake. But her news conference Thursday evening doesn’t begin to cover all the questions to which the public deserves answers.
We understand the mayor’s urgency to address the controversy surrounding her arrangement to sell tens of thousands of copies of her self-published children’s books to UMMS, and we sympathize with how difficult it must have been for her to do so just hours after being released from the hospital for pneumonia. She was clearly not at her best, and we wish her a speedy recovery. We also do not question her sincere commitment to fighting childhood obesity and improving the health of Baltimore’s children. No one who knows her could doubt her devotion to fitness.
But the fact remains that she entered into a lucrative arrangement with a non-profit on whose board she served while holding significant sway over its fate as a member of the legislature. She provided some documentation of the arrangement, but not nearly enough to satisfy all questions.
Ms. Pugh produced a letter from UMMS to the Baltimore City School System from 2011 detailing the offer to provide a large number of copies of the first “Healthy Holly” book and indicating the system’s willingness to accept of the books. But she proffered no such evidence that the system had any interest in the subsequent two sequels that were published, the one she had written but (she now discloses) did not print or another that is still being written. (UMMS paid for all of the above; Ms. Pugh says she returned the $100,000 for the last after The Sun began raising questions.) The fact that the system has said it had no instructional purpose for the books and has been warehousing thousands of them on Pulaski Highway may be all the answer we need, but if Ms. Pugh has more such letters of acceptance, we’d love to see them.
Ms. Pugh also produced shipping manifests to document the delivery of the books to the school system, but system officials have no record that they received them and do not recall getting any copies after the 2011-2013 time frame. Moreover, we have no documentation of the costs of printing, any expense related to illustration and layout, or the reporting of any of this on Ms. Pugh’s taxes. (The Canadian printing company, contacted by The Sun Thursday night, estimated that each batch cost about $13,000 including shipping, and the book’s illustrator previously told The Sun that he did the work for free, but Ms. Pugh has previously said her expenses to produce each batch of books amounted to about $80,000.) Nor do we have a good explanation for why she reported outside income from other endeavors on her state financial disclosure statements during her time as a senator but not those from Healthy Holly LLC.
Ms. Pugh ended her news conference Thursday by saying she could not legally answer questions because the matter is under investigation — presumably referring to the complaint filed to the state prosecutor’s office by its former investigator, James Cabezas. That’s not quite true. She may well have been advised by her lawyer not to answer questions, but she is perfectly free to ignore him or her, just as she ignored her doctor’s advice to continue resting after her illness. She is entitled to answer any questions she wishes — no judge has said otherwise. Indeed, she provided the information she (and/or her lawyer) wanted to during a 20-minute news conference at City Hall. No one would stop her from providing more documentation to put this matter to rest. Will she?
Meanwhile, Ms. Pugh’s statement Thursday only deepens the concerns about UMMS’ handling of the matter. The system appears to have paid her $200,000 for books that were never printed, or in one case even written. Did it ever follow up with the schools or anyone else to find out whether or how the books were distributed or whether they were useful tools in the fight against childhood obesity? Did it ever check to make sure they were even printed? Or were they just throwing money at a member of the board with no questions asked?