The BookGate scandal in Baltimore is still going strong, as both the media and the state government investigate the alleged self-dealing, grifting activities of Mayor Catherine Pugh and the nearly one million dollars she collected for her “Healthy Holly” series of children’s books. The latest revelation, instead of opening yet another jackpot of cash, takes us back to the origin of the story. Once Pugh began writing and publishing her books through her LLC, how did the University of Maryland Medical System wind up ordering a hundred thousand of them?

Pugh claims she was approached by other members of the UMMS board. But now, the new, acting CEO of UMMS is contradicting that story, saying it was Pugh who pushed for the deal. (Baltimore Sun)

Baltimore Mayor Catherine Pugh solicited a lucrative no-bid arrangement to sell copies of her self-published children’s books to the University of Maryland Medical System in “direct conversations” with the hospital network’s CEO, a top system official testified Saturday in Annapolis.

Acting CEO John W. Ashworth III said his predecessor, Robert A. Chrencik, talked with Pugh about buying the “Healthy Holly” books.

“We do know that the mayor approached us,” Ashworth told the House Health and Government Operations Committee. “She had direct conversations with the president and CEO at the time, and possibly others. But we need to look into that even more to make a determination about how all of that occurred.”

That certainly makes a lot more sense than the story Pugh fed to the press. She’s claimed from the beginning that she was waiting for a UMMS board meeting to begin and had been “thumbing through a copy” of one of the books when another member took notice. That supposedly triggered this entire chain of events. The UMMS CEO recalls it quite differently.

And which of these stories makes more sense? Pugh was in that board room for a meeting, presumably with another set of adults. But in case the meeting was running late she brought along some reading material? And it was a children’s book? A book that she herself wrote? The thing is only twenty pages long and is comprised primarily of pictures. Had she forgotten some of the key plot points? The whole thing stinks like a dumpster fire and now UMMS isn’t covering for her by backing up her story.

One thing I keep asking over and over is if all of this obvious grifting could possibly be legal. It’s unethical to be sure, but were any laws broken? The Baltimore Sun helpfully compiled a list of commonly asked questions about this scandal recently and they tackled that one head on. The first, three-word sentence of their response will let you know that you shouldn’t feel too bad if don’t know the answer.

Is any of this illegal?

We don’t know.

As a state senator and as mayor, Ms. Pugh has been required to report outside sources of income on financial disclosure forms, under penalty of perjury, and she did not include information about Healthy Holly LLC on her Senate forms. (Since The Sun first reported on Healthy Holly, she filed amended forms.)

Whether her lapses amount to a crime depends on whether she knew or should have known that the Healthy Holly income needed to be disclosed. (Ms. Pugh did disclose other outside sources of income.) The State Prosecutor’s Office, which successfully prosecuted former Baltimore County Superintendent Dallas Dance for perjury in his failure to disclose outside income, is now investigating.

Aside from failing to fill out the ethics and income disclosure forms properly, the only other possible criminal charges they mention involve a situation where Pugh might have failed to declare the income on her taxes. But that’s just run-of-the-mill tax fraud. And we don’t even know if it took place because the Mayor is still refusing to provide her tax returns showing that she declared all of the Healthy Holly income.

If she did, she could conceivably skate away from all of this. That’s because neither the city nor the state ever bothered to pass a law barring elected officials from these sorts of self-dealing, no-bid contract shenanigans. And here’s the kicker for you. As also reported in that Baltimore Sun Q&A, if she’s not convicted of a crime, she can’t be removed from office except by the voters at the next election. There is no provision in municipal or state law for removing her through impeachment or recall.

Man… good work if you can get it, eh?