Baltimore mayor Catherine Pugh takes leave amid book scandal

As state leaders call for Baltimore’s mayor to resign for what they call a “self-dealing” book-sales arrangement, Catherine Pugh announced Monday she is taking an indefinite leave of absence.

In a statement, Pugh’s office said the mayor, a Democrat, needed a break following a recent bout of pneumonia.

“She’s been advised by her physicians that she needs to take time to recover and focus on her health,” the statement read. 

Also Monday, Maryland’s Republican governor asked the state prosecutor to investigate Pugh’s alleged book deals worth hundreds of thousands of dollars. 

Gov. Larry Hogan described Pugh’s arrangements to sell her self-published illustrated “Healthy Holly” books as “deeply disturbing.” In his letter, Hogan said he was particularly concerned about a $500,000 sale to a university-based health care system because of its public funding.

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State Comptroller Peter Franchot, a Democrat, meanwhile called for her immediate resignation. 

“The people of Baltimore are facing too many serious challenges, as it is, to also deal with such brazen, cartoonish corruption from their chief executive,” Franchot tweeted. 

The criticism came hours after Kaiser Permanente disclosed it paid $114,000, between 2015 and 2018, for roughly 20,000 paperback copies of Pugh’s  books. That followed revelations Pugh had received $500,000 since 2011 for selling 100,000 copies of her roughly 20-page books to the University of Maryland Medical System, a $4 billion hospital network that’s one of the state’s largest private employers. 

Pugh became Baltimore’s mayor in 2016. The next year, Baltimore’s spending board, controlled by the mayor, awarded a $48 million contract to the Kaiser Foundation Health Plan of the Mid-Atlantic States Inc. Kaiser previously held that contract. 

Another city health provider effectively bought Pugh’s books for $14,500 in 2011 and 2014, The Baltimore Sun reported. In an email, CareFirst BlueCross BlueShield said it contributed to Associated Black Charities, a nonprofit that manages the city’s Children and Youth Fund, to fund its purchase and distribution of books.

The mayor’s press office has referred calls to her attorney, Steve Silverman. Phone messages left at his Baltimore firm were not immediately returned. The city council president will take over Pugh’s day-to-day responsibilities, per the city’s charter.

U.S. Rep. Elijah Cummings, whose district includes half of Baltimore, said in a statement he wishes Pugh a speedy recovery.

“I want everyone to remain focused on the fact that there are thousands of good people doing important work every single day to make Baltimore a better place to live and work,” Cummings said. “There is no doubt we are experiencing some difficult times now, but we cannot lose hope or confidence in our ability to be the architects and builders of the kind of city, nation and world we dream of for ourselves and those yet unborn.” 

Pugh resigned from the University of Maryland Medical System’s volunteer board two weeks ago and has returned her most recent book payment of $100,000. She apologized for that book deal at a press conference last week, calling it a “regrettable mistake.”

In addition to serving on the system’s board since 2001, Pugh once sat on a state Senate committee that funded the major health network prior to becoming mayor. 

The interim leader of the University of Maryland Medical System on Monday said he believed nothing criminal took place. Starting this week, an independent auditor will review financial relationships involving the UMMS and board members, John Ashworth added.

Contributing: The Associated Press

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