Amid half-hearted assurances of Baltimore’s resilience and lukewarm attempts at civic cheerleading from others throughout the day, Acting Mayor Bernard C. “Jack” Young (D) kept it short.
In his first day as the city’s ex officio mayor, the East Baltimore Democrat spoke briefly to the media and answered a couple of questions Tuesday, a day that began publicly in Annapolis at 9 a.m., when he met with the city’s Senate delegation to the General Assembly.
The most revealing of his comments in Baltimore were about the well-being of Mayor Catherine E. Pugh, who abruptly took an indefinite leave of absence as the city’s chief executive because, she said, of a recent bout with pneumonia, effective at midnight Tuesday, elevating him to the helm under the provisions of the City Charter.
Young, who on Monday was City Council president, said Pugh did not speak with him before taking her leave, which came in the thick of a growing scandal over her unreported sale of children’s books, supposedly authored by her and mostly featuring a character named “Healthy Holly.”
“I did call her to inquire about how she was doing. And she really didn’t sound good at all,” Young told reporters. “I didn’t stay on the phone long. Just told her that I was praying for her. That was it.”
Despite his best efforts, a pall seemed to hang over Young’s 12:30 p.m. press conference in the anteroom of the City Council chamber, on the 4th Floor of City Hall, where his first address as acting mayor drew the attention of national news outlets.
He stood at a podium before all 14 members of the Baltimore City Council – Democrats all — who had hustled in for the event, along with a handful of key department heads, with whom he had just met in a closed meeting.
All told, Young spoke for just 5½ minutes to the media, part of it, reading from prepared remarks, before being whisked away by staff.
“I want to thank everybody and let them know that the city of Baltimore is stable and moving forward, and the work is just beginning,” Young said. “I’m anxious to start, and I’m anxious to work with my Council colleagues, because I’m just ex officio now, o.k.?”
Twice he referred to himself as “a stabilizing force” for Baltimore.
Young introduced Acting City Council President Sharon Green Middleton, who ordinarily is the Council vice president, but under the Charter ascended to the top spot, when Young stepped up to the mayor’s office.
“We’re gonna keep this city moving, and we’re gonna get things done,” he said of himself and Middleton, who represents Northwest Baltimore’s 6th District.
City Hall staffers and other political observers packed the press conference, some complaining privately about the confusion that prevailed at City Hall in the wake of Pugh’s sudden exit and the occasionally chaotic efforts to assure the public that all was well.
“The past few weeks have been painful and traumatizing for all of us,” Young said. “Like all of you, I am utterly heartbroken.”
Pugh and her book sales are under investigation by the Maryland State Prosecutor – a probe formally requested Monday by Gov. Lawrence J. Hogan Jr., a Republican – and is facing increased calls for her resignation as more details about her dealings become public.
Asked if he believed Pugh should resign, Young said:
“Like I said earlier — and I’m going to stand by my previous remarks — the governor have called on the special prosecutor to look into this matter. The Maryland state House delegation and the Senate is looking into this. I want them to continue to do their work, while I do the work of moving the city forward. So, I stand by that comment.”
In a series of articles beginning March 13, The Baltimore Sun revealed that $500,000 was paid to Pugh by the University of Maryland Medical System – where she was a board member – for as many as 100,000 copies of her “Healthy Holly” books, no-bid sales that she did not note on any financial disclosure forms.
Pugh was first named to the UMMS board in 2001, when she was a Baltimore city councilwoman representing West Baltimore. She continued to serve on the panel when she was elected in 2006 to the Maryland Senate and assigned to the Finance Committee, which deals with hospital and insurance matters.
She resigned the UMMS position last month, returned $100,000 to the medical system for 20,000 undelivered books and amended her financial disclosure filings.
On Monday, The Sun reported that Kaiser Permanente, a health care company doing business with the city, had paid Pugh roughly $114,000 from 2015 to 2018 to purchase as many as 20,000 copies of “Healthy Holly.” During that time, Kaiser Permanente was seeking a $48 million contract to provide health insurance to city employees – a contract it eventually was awarded.
Additionally, the paper reported that Associated Black Charities (ABC) acknowledged it had collected nearly $90,000 from five separate entities to buy 10,000 copies of the books, with roughly $80,000 of that money going to Pugh’s company, Healthy Holly LLC.
Young was asked specifically about Pugh’s arrangement with ABC, which was hired by the city to oversee a $12 million grant program, the Baltimore Children and Youth Fund, all of which was created as a result of legislation he had proposed and ushered into law.
“You know, I had no knowledge of Associated [Black] Charities being a part of this until I read it from what you guys put in the paper,” he said. “So, I haven’t had the time to take a deep dive into that.”
Also Tuesday, The Baltimore Business Journal reported that the Maryland Automobile Insurance Fund (MAIF), the so-called insurer of last resort, acknowledged it had donated $7,500 to Pugh’s LLC in 2012, when she was on the Senate Finance Committee and successfully sponsored legislation sought by the quasi-public company.
Earlier in the day, in Annapolis, the House of Delegates gave preliminary approval to late-moving legislation that would bar no-bid contracts for the UMMS board of directors and would prevent all elected officials from serving on the board.
The bill was sponsored by House Speaker Michael E. Busch (D-Anne Arundel), who, like Pugh has been battling pneumonia. With Busch missing from the House chamber Tuesday, Minority Leader Nicholaus R. Kipke (R-Anne Arundel) served as floor leader for the measure.
“We’re doing our best to react to the shameful things that have come to light recently,” Kipke told his colleagues.
Similar legislation, sponsored by Sen. Jill P. Carter (D-Baltimore City), moved out of the Senate Finance Committee Tuesday evening but has yet to hit the Senate floor.
Josh Kurtz contributed to this report.