Baltimore bookgate continues: Where are all the books?

We’re now well into the second week of bookgate in the city of Baltimore, Maryland. (If you missed the details of the story thus far you can browse our previous coverage of it here.) The passage of time and various requests for information from Mayor Catherine Pugh, the University of Maryland Medical System (UMMS) and the Baltimore City School District have not made this tale smell any better. All the members of the UMMS Board of Directors who had these “self-dealing” arrangements have now either resigned or been placed on leave.

But one question specific to Mayor Pugh’s situation remains unanswered. If she supposedly “sold” 100,000 copies of her self-published children’s book to UMMS to be distributed around hospitals and schools in the city, where are they all? The last order for 20,000 books may or may not have been canceled, but that still leaves a lot of books to account for. The Baltimore Sun has been digging for answers and as of yet, nobody seems to know. Some are beginning to wonder if the full quantity of books ever existed at all.

Tens of thousands of Mayor Catherine Pugh’s “Healthy Holly” children’s books have not been accounted for by the institution that paid for them or the mayor, even as public pressure builds amid accusations of “self-dealing” at the University of Maryland Medical System.

From 2011 through 2018, the University of Maryland Medical System had a deal to spend $500,000 for 100,000 copies of Pugh’s self-published book series. The system placed five orders of 20,000 books at $5 each while Pugh sat on the hospital’s board of directors…

That would mean 80,000 should have been printed and distributed.

Bear with me here, because the details get even worse. First of all, 100,000 copies of a twenty page, self-published children’s book is a ridiculous number. As the Sun notes, the first run of Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone in the United States was 50,000. (Yes, they printed many more later, but only after the demand was established.) The entire population of the city of Baltimore is just over 600,000 and census estimates show that less than 7% of them are in the target age group for a book like this. That means there are roughly 42,000 kids living in the region. The original order would have been enough for every child in that age bracket to have two copies of the same book.

Returning to the original question, even if we assume that this staggering number of books was actually printed, where are they now and where’s the documentation for all of this activity? The Baltimore Sun has been unable to locate many copies aside from the more than 8,000 sitting in a warehouse with no paperwork indicating where they came from or what was to be done with them. Does anyone involved in this grifting scheme have anything to say to the public?

The Mayor has been asked if she would provide copies of her tax returns showing all of the money she received was accounted for as she claimed. She declined.

The Mayor has been asked if she would provide receipts showing that the books were printed and who they were distributed to. She didn’t even respond to the request.

UMMS was asked to provide receipts showing the books had been printed or distributed. They declined.

Baltimore City Public Schools officials were asked if they received the books. They said they “remember” one shipment sometime between 2011 and 2013, but no records are available.

How do you get away with just “declining” to answer any of these questions? These are all public officials or people spending taxpayer dollars. I understand that Mayor Pugh and UMMS are sticking to their story that there’s no law against this type of self-dealing yet (one is being rushed through the legislature this month). But that still doesn’t mean you can schedule an order and take the money if the taxpayer-funded product in question never even existed, does it? Surely there has to be a law covering that.

The more we learn about this story, the worse it looks. And yet Mayor Pugh is shrugging it off as if nobody can lay a glove on her. I’m left wondering if maybe she’s right and public officials in Baltimore can nakedly engage in this sort of apparent corruption and remain beyond the reach of the law.

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