The political corruption scandal roiling Baltimore, leading to an FBI raid of Mayor Catherine Pugh’s house Thursday morning, all began with a children’s book.
Pugh, who has been serving as the city’s mayor since 2016, is at the center of a controversy that started with the revelation in March that she’d sold her children’s books, the Healthy Holly series, to entities that have business deals with the city, including a $500,000 deal with the University of Maryland Medical System and a similar deal with health company Kaiser Permanente.
Pugh, who has been on leave since April 1, has made more than $800,000 from selling her self-published books, according to reporting from the Baltimore Sun.
Pugh says she “never intended to do anything that could not stand up to scrutiny.”
The book deals were under state investigation; the raids on Thursday suggest a federal crime might have been committed as well. On Thursday, after the FBI and IRS raided at least six different locations, including the mayor’s home and second residence and her attorney’s office, Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan, a Republican, called on her to step down. The Baltimore City Council had already asked for Pugh’s resignation.
Companies and nonprofits in Baltimore paid six-figure sums for Pugh’s self-published children’s book, Healthy Holly
This all started with “Healthy Holly,” a children’s book about a young black girl who promotes self-improvement. Holly is the ideal kid: She exercises regularly and eats her veggie and fruits. She’s the main character of three books by Pugh: Healthy Holly: Exercising is Fun!, Healthy Holly: Fruits Come In Colors Like The Rainbow, and Healthy Holly: A Healthy Start for Herbie.
Pugh said she had the idea to write the series about a decade ago, when she was still a Democratic state senator, in order to encourage healthier lifestyles for children, according to the New York Times.
What might seem like an innocent project rapidly began to unravel after the Baltimore Sun reported that Pugh was making hundreds of thousands of dollars from sales of her books to people, companies, and charities that do business with the city.
Pugh, who was on the board of the University of Maryland Medical System, a private nonprofit that operates 13 hospitals and 150 other health facilities in Maryland, received $500,000 in a deal that was supposed to distribute the books in day care centers and school libraries.
Health care company Kaiser Permanente purchased about 20,000 copies for $114,000 between 2015 and 2018. During this period, the company was trying to negotiate a contract with the city’s spending panel to provide coverage to city employees. Subsequently, the panel approved a $48 million contract. The Baltimore Sun reported that the mayor did not recuse herself from the vote despite the apparent conflict of interest.
Charities and businesses in the city also reportedly paid tens of thousands of dollars for Healthy Holly books. Pugh’s book company, Healthy Holly LLC, was in charge of distributing the books to hospitals, school districts, and libraries. But it’s not clear if they actually showed up. Many copies of the books that racked up at least $800,000 in sales for Pugh can’t be found.
Pugh says she made about $1 per copy on the books, according to the Baltimore Sun (which still would have netted her quite a profit). But the Sun’s reporting suggests that she did much better than that and that her estimate of her expenses to print and distribute the books is too high.
The books, according to Washington Post book critic Carlos Lozada, who read them with his children after the scandal took off, aren’t exactly a narrative triumph. (A sample of the dialogue between Holly and her mother, according to Lozada: “Exercising is fun,” the mother tells Holly, who answers, “I will be healthy. I like having fun.”) But the appeal to buyers likely wasn’t the quality of the literature; it was the possibility to curry favor with the mayor.
Pugh didn’t initially disclose the income from Healthy Holly on the
Despite a backlash, Pugh is refusing to resign
It’s not yet clear if Pugh actually broke any laws, although she’s now under both state and federal investigation.
So far, she’s been defiant: During a press conference on March 28, the mayor apologized for doing “something to upset the people of Baltimore,” according to the Baltimore Business Journal, but denied any allegations of corruption. Still, Pugh resigned from the board of UMMS and returned $100,000 to the medical system.
The city, however, isn’t ready to let her off the hook. All but one member of city council has signed a letter on April 8 asking for her resignation, which Pugh has refused to offer.
A few hours after FBI raided her house, Gov. Larry Hogan has now also joined the many voices demanding for her resignation. In a statement on Twitter, he emphasized the need for a strong and responsible leader for Baltimore, while pointing out that Pugh was not the right fit.
Since April 1, Pugh has been out of the office, and an acting mayor has been filling her role. A statement from her office said she was recovering from pneumonia and didn’t mention any allegations regarding her book deals.
Pugh, who initially said she fully intended to return to her role as mayor, is now stepping back from her aggressive stance. On Friday, her lawyer said she is too emotionally and physically distraught right now to make any decisions and would decide the future once Pugh is “lucid.” For now, there’s nothing the city council can do because there are no guidelines for impeachment in the Baltimore city charter.
This is the second time in a decade that a Baltimore mayor has faced corruption allegations: Mayor Shelia Dixon was forced to resign in 2010 after she was found guilty of embezzlement and theft. Unstable leadership has been a problem more broadly; the city has seen five different police chiefs in just the span of five years.
With public trust at a low, Pugh faces a rocky road if she decides to return to her mayoral position. It remains questionable whether or not she’ll be able to win back citizens who are already wary of a volatile political scene.