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Embattled Baltimore Mayor Stepping Aside Temporarily

Baltimore Mayor Catherine E. Pugh (D). Photo by Bruce DePuyt

After weeks of scandal involving a self-published children’s book for which she was paid more than half a million dollars, Baltimore Mayor Catherine E. Pugh (D) will take “an indefinite leave of absence,” her administration announced on Monday afternoon.

City Council President Bernard C. “Jack” Young (D) will take over the daily operations of government as “ex officio” mayor of the city, Pugh’s press office said in a statement.

Shortly before Pugh’s decision was announced, Gov. Lawrence J. Hogan Jr. (R) called on the state prosecutor to investigate the apparent sweetheart book deal that Pugh, until recently a member of the University of Maryland Medical System board of directors, had with the institution.

But Pugh aides cast her decision to relinquish her duties as a health matter, not a reaction to the growing calls for her to step down — including from state Comptroller Peter V.R. Franchot (D) on Monday — or Hogan’s call for a criminal investigation.

Pugh has been battling pneumonia “for the past few weeks,” her office said. “With the Mayor’s health deteriorating, she feels as though she is unable to fulfill her obligations as Mayor of Baltimore City.”

She recently spent several days in the hospital, aides said.

Last month, The Baltimore Sun revealed that Pugh received $500,000 in payments from UMMS for 100,000 copies of her self-published children’s health series, “Healthy Holly,” while serving on the system’s board of directors.

The books were purchased in a series of five one-year contracts, 20,000 books at a time, for $5 each.

On Monday, The Sun reported that health insurer Kaiser Permanente also paid Pugh more than $100,000 to purchase copies of her books from 2015 to 2018.

The mayor was one of nine members found by The Sun to have financial ties to the institution. The board, which has 30 members, is now the focus of intense scrutiny and criticism.

CEO Robert A. Chrencik recently took a leave of absence at the direction of board President Stephen A. Burch, and several members of the board have temporarily stepped aside or resigned outright.

In his letter to State Prosecutor Emmet C. Davitt, whose office investigates political corruption cases, Hogan said the reports of Pugh’s payments from UMMS are “deeply disturbing.”

“All members have the expectation that their public officials as well as individuals involved with institutions that are funded by and closely related to the state, will follow the highest legal and ethical standards,” Hogan wrote.

House Speaker Michael E. Busch (D-Anne Arundel) and state Sen. Jill P. Carter (D-Baltimore City) have introduced legislation that would bar members of the UMMS board from benefiting from their service. It would also require the appointment of an all-new board.

Baltimore City Councilmember Mary Pat Clarke (D) told The Sun that Pugh’s decision to take a leave of absence is the right move for the city.

“It’s a tsunami here and we’re drowning,” she said. “We need to survive as a city and to thrive.”

Pugh, 69, is a former City Councilmember, state delegate and state senator.

Some of the royalty payments she received for her book came during her tenure as a member of the Senate Finance Committee, a panel that oversees health policy in Maryland. She has acknowledged filing incomplete ethics disclosure forms.

When the news of her arrangement with UMMS first surfaced, she defended the deal, saying she was proud of her books, which focus on the importance of exercise and a healthy diet.

But at a news conference last week, following her release from the hospital, Pugh called her no-bid deal with the system “a regrettable mistake.”

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Embattled Baltimore Mayor Stepping Aside Temporarily