Mayor Catherine Pugh said there was never a contract between herself and the University of Maryland Medical System, which paid her $500,000 for a series of self-published children’s books.
An occasionally emotional Pugh apologized to city residents for creating an appearance of impropriety during a news conference at City Hall on Thursday.
“I understand the objections and some of the concerns of many over my decision to enter into a financial relationship with the University of Maryland Medical System … and I sincerely want to say that I apologize that I’ve done something to upset … the people of Baltimore. … I also want to make it very clear I never intended to do anything that could not stand up to scrutiny,” Pugh said.
The mayor received payments from the nonprofit health care system over a period dating back to 2010 for roughly 100,000 of her “Healthy Holly” books.
The financial dealings between Pugh and the health system raise ethical issues regarding a politician receiving financial benefits from an organization affected by city governance and policies. Subsequent reporting on the issue also raised questions about how many of the books made it into the hands of the large audience, city school children.
The news conference, which Pugh said she held against doctor’s advice, was the first time she’s addressed reporters since the controversy came to light and her subsequent hospitalization for pneumonia earlier this week.
Pugh, soft-spoken generally, sounded frail, and occasionally became emotional discussing the controversy. She declined to answer questions, citing legal advice against doing because of probes into the matter.
Pugh showed reporters letters, shipping documents for books sent to Baltimore schools and children’s clothes designed as part of the “Healthy Holly” book series as proof of the product’s existence.
Pugh said the ‘Healthy Holly’ concept stemmed from attending a national conference in 2008 dealing with the issue of childhood obesity, particularly among African-American children.
Pugh, a state senator at the time, said she approached the Health Department to ask what the agency was doing to address the problem and developed the character after she was told the department didn’t focus on education on health subjects.
“So by that time I got a little bitty board … and started scribbling, and when I got home I had scribbled this book called ‘Healthy Holly,'” she said.
The idea was to create a character that would help motivate kids to exercise and eat healthy food, Pugh said, and she started publishing the first of three books, “Healthy Holly: Exercising is Fun,” in September 2010.
“I shared it with groups, with children, organizations, and prior to a board meeting at University of Maryland Medical Systems I shared it with one of the colleagues there. They liked it, and felt that it was part of their own mission, and they raised the question ‘How many?'” Pugh said.
Pugh said she responded that her goal was to get the book out to students between kindergarten and third grade in Baltimore public schools. At that time she estimated there were about 18,000 to 20,000 of those students.