Baltimore BookGate: The search is on for potentially phantom books

Investigations into details of Baltimore Mayor Catherine Pugh’s self-dealing scandal continue, even as the mayor herself has been hospitalized with pneumonia. As we recently learned, the Mayor claims to have sold 100,000 of her Healthy Holly children’s books to the University of Maryland Medical System (UMMS). If we look past the obvious grifting aspects of the case, such a deal was supposedly legal in the technical sense, provided all of the $500K worth of transactions were properly handled, taxes were paid and her business interests were appropriately reported in her ethics and income disclosure statements. (That’s a lot of “ifs” which we’ll get to shortly.)


The most glaring problem at the moment is figuring out where all of these self-published books went. The Mayor claims she returned the final $100K payment she received for the last 20,000 books, but there’s been no indication of whether or not those books had already shipped. Even giving her the benefit of the doubt, that leaves 80,000 books to account for. We already learned that more than 8,000 of them are gathering dust in a UMMS warehouse, but where are the other more than 70,000? The Baltimore Sun has been scrambling and contacting all of the outlets that might have gotten the copies. Thus far, however, they’re coming up far, far short.

First, they list a number of places that supposedly might have received books to give away but never got any. These include the free library, book shops, Head Start centers, Baltimore elementary schools, county public schools, and family medical networks. Nobody at any of these places recalls ever seeing the books. Then they list some of the places where they did find people saying they’d received books. Here are a few, not including the pile found in the warehouse.

» The Book Thing: Founder Russell Wattenberg said his organization, which gives away previously unwanted books for free, has gotten a “few copies in, but that’s it.”

» The Maryland Book Bank: Mark Feiring, the director, said he’s gotten “no more than 50 books,” all within the last few months.

» Childtime: Three parents whose children attended this child care center in downtown Baltimore said they remembered their children getting copies of at least one of the books, probably more than five years ago.

» Center for Urban Families: Joseph Jones Jr., president and CEO of the Center for Urban Families, said he recalled some “Healthy Holly” books being shared years ago with the family center’s clients. He couldn’t recall how many but knows it wasn’t a large volume.


There are virtually no records of transfer and most of the people the newspaper spoke to are relying on memory. Even being very generous, they haven’t accounted for more than a thousand books. Neither the Mayor nor UMMS has delivered any sort of receipts or records of the books being delivered or even printed. It appears that there are at least 50,000 books unaccounted for.

“Selling” that vast number of books to UMMS (enough for every single child in the city and county to have multiple copies) is bad enough. But is it even possible that Pugh could have taken payments for fifty to sixty thousands books that were never even printed? If so, that simply has to be against the law.

Meanwhile, a complaint has been filed with state prosecutors over Pugh’s failure to properly disclose all of these transactions on required forms. And that’s yet another possible penalty that can land you in court.

A retired public corruption investigator filed a complaint Monday with the Maryland State Prosecutor against Baltimore Mayor Catherine Pugh, alleging she deliberately did not report her Healthy Holly company in annual disclosure forms when she was a state senator.

James Cabezas, a former investigator for the prosecutor’s office, wrote in his complaint that Pugh must have known she was required to report the children’s book company because she disclosed two other businesses in forms filed with the State Ethics Commission.

If proven, the failure to disclose her ownership of the children’s book company while in the state senate would set Pugh up for a perjury charge. As the newspaper notes, a former County Public Schools Superintendent was convicted of perjury last year for failing to properly disclose similar information, so there’s a precedent for this.


This story looks more and more rotten with every new disclosure. And if Pugh blatantly stole hundreds of thousands of dollars by peddling phantom books to UMMS, she needs to be worried about more than just keeping her job.

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Karen Townsend 7:21 PM on October 03, 2023