Appearing shell-shocked and somber, Pugh faces the media on Healthy Holly
Refusing to take questions on the advice of her lawyer, Baltimore’s mayor faces her biggest crisis yet
Above: Mayor Pugh showed reporters the bibs, onesies, blankets and jump ropes intended for sale as part of her Healthy Holly business. (Fern Shen)
Brandishing shipping documents one minute and exercise-themed baby clothes the next, Mayor Catherine Pugh faced the media to talk about her half-million-dollar “Healthy Holly” book deal with the University of Maryland Medical System (UMMS).
She led off with some barely audible words of remorse.
“I want to apologize that I’ve done something to upset the people,” she said yesterday in a hoarse whisper.
At another point, she said, “I am deeply sorry for any lack of confidence and disappointment which this initiative may have caused.”
“In hindsight,” she said, the arrangement with UMMS – where she served on the board of directors until resigning last week – “was a regrettable mistake.”
But there was also finger pointing.
“I do hope that we find out from the school system where the rest of those books are.”
City School officials have said they could only find 8,700 of the mayor’s self-published children’s books – in a warehouse which they have refused to let a reporter see – and could find no documentation for the one shipment of books that staff remembered about five years ago.
But Pugh said the school system received tens of thousands of the books and concluded her remarks yesterday by throwing the ball back to North Avenue.
“I do hope that we find out from the school system where the rest of those books are,” she said.
She then alluded to the possible legal jeopardy she may be facing from the book scandal.
“I have been advised that because this matter is under review,” she said, “that I cannot take questions.”
(Robert A. Chrencik, president and CEO of the hospital system, was placed on administrative leave following the disclosure of payments to Pugh and to businesses owned by other board members. In addition to that review, Pugh’s actions have prompted a complaint to the State Prosecutor from a retired investigator from that office.)
Three Book Orders
It was a halting performance by a chief executive who usually maintains a steely command of press availabilities and keeps her remarks upbeat and flowing.
Looking weary, she noted that she had just been released from Johns Hopkins Hospital where she was treated for pneumonia and said her appearance before reporters was “against the advice of my doctors.”
The first document she described was a January 12, 2011 letter from a UMMS vice president, Jerry Wollman to Sonja Santelises, then chief academic officer for Baltimore City Public Schools.
It said that the hospital system wanted “to continue its history of community outreach” by donating 20,000 copies of “Healthy Holly: Exercising is Fun.”
“The publication provides schoolchildren with positive messages about about the benefits of healthy lifestyle choices including exercise,” Wollman wrote. “I understand that BCPS will accept the medical system’s donation of these educational materials.”
Shipping manifests show 20,000 books delivered to school headquarters on North Avenue on June 10, 2011, while 2,090 were sent to Pugh’s district office “so I could walk around with those books to various schools,” as she put it.
“I understand that BCPS will accept the medical system’s donation of these educational materials.”
“Two years later, we produced just over 21,000 more books – ‘Healthy Holly: A Healthy Start for Herbie,’” Pugh said, continuing her narrative.
The March 28, 2013 shipping bill provided to reporters shows 1,500 were printed separately for Pugh, while the other 18,600 books were delivered to North Avenue.
The August 25, 2015 order for the third book in the series, “Healthy Holly: Fruits Come in Colors Like the Rainbow,” according to documents Pugh provided, showed 1,500 books went to her campaign committee address and 19,500 to City Schools.
Fourth Book Never Shipped
As for the fourth title, “Healthy Holly: Vegetables are not Just Green,” Pugh acknowledged that she was paid $100,000 by UMMS, but the books were not shipped.
The 2017 shipment “is in the process of completion,” she said. “There was no deadline to ship those books.”
She did not explain why those books never appeared in Baltimore.
As the mayor previously said, the fifth book in the series was canceled and she has returned the money to UMMS. Why?
“Because the person who does our layout [of] our book was very ill. . . and we have no date for her proposed return and she is undergoing a prolonged rehabilitation,” Pugh said.
This is presumably Carmellita Green, listed on Healthy Holly books as the person who did “book and back jacket design, editing and layout.”
She’s in the 2018 city employees database as a $66,300 executive assistant in the mayor’s office, hired on September 11, 20i7.
Green has not returned phone calls from The Brew. A spokesman for Pugh said she left the mayor’s office for a job at the Department of Public Works.
Many Lingering Questions
School officials said it was too early to respond to Pugh’s statements about UMMS having shipped roughly 58,000 books to them in recent years.
That number is far different from the 8,700 books that school officials say they have tracked down in the Pulaski Highway warehouse.
“As we have indicated, City Schools has not located documentation of receipt of books,” spokesperson Anne Fullerton said last night.
“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 staff members recall receiving.”
Pugh has plans for those warehoused books. “I am making arrangements to retrieve those books in order to make them available to children in our community,” she told reporters.
Other statements that she made yesterday were more puzzling.
Among them was her assertion that there “was never a contract” with UMMS. For $500,000 in purchases?
She also spoke about how someone on the UMMS board of directors suggested that the system buy the books from her.
A reporter asked who it was, but Pugh wasn’t taking questions.
What about the fact that she never reported the book payments – or her formation of Healthy Holly LLC – in ethics disclosure reports filed as a state senator?
The matter never came up during her brief appearance.
Ditto for how much Pugh made in profit on the deal – there was no discussion of how that $400,000 was used.
Previously she said the books cost $4 each to compose, print and ship – and were sold to UMMS at a “modest” price of $5 per copy.
But invoices, canceled checks or other documentation of her expenses weren’t part of her presentation.
Bibs and Onesies
Pugh’s media strategist Gregory Tucker, who has said he would be leaving the job when his contract expires at the end of the month, appeared to be coordinating the event, along with spokesman James E. Bentley II.
A significant portion of the news conference was taken up with the mayor displaying the infant clothes, bibs, a baby blanket and other merchandise she designed as part of her Healthy Holly business.
They had been on a table hidden under a black cloth. They were uncovered by staffers who placed them carefully on the lectern for Pugh as she requested them.
“As you can see from our bibs, it was about teaching children to walk, run, crawl, skip, dance,” she said, picking up the pastel blue and pink items one by one.
“It was never about books,” she continued, holding up the items for the cameras. “It was about a lifestyle.”