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New York Times: A Children’s Book Is Causing a Political Scandal in Baltimore. It’s Quite a Tale.

What has become a full-blown political scandal in Baltimore started innocently enough. In fact, it began with a children’s book.

Mayor Catherine Pugh, a fitness fanatic, said that about a decade ago, she was inspired to encourage children to pursue healthy lifestyles, and so she created the “Healthy Holly” series of books, about a little girl devoted to self-improvement and the betterment of those around her.

At the time, Ms. Pugh, a Democrat, was a state senator who sat on the board of one of the state’s largest nonprofit health care companies. In what seemed like a happy ending, she struck a deal to sell 100,000 copies of the books to the company for $500,000.

But now, the arrangement has become public, raising questions not only about the propriety of the arrangement, but also about just how many children had access to the books.

“This is a window into the shadowy, seamy side of politics, where powerful insiders self-deal,” said Peter Franchot, the state comptroller, who has called for an independent audit. “I haven’t gotten over the shock of it. It’s almost juvenile.”

Ms. Pugh, who became mayor in 2016, has acknowledged receiving $500,000 for the books from the University of Maryland Medical System, which operates 13 hospitals and 150 other health facilities around the state. The mayor has said that all copies were donated to places like school libraries and day care centers.

But now, no one can find the books. They are not in school libraries. They are not in the city’s public libraries. One of the titles appears on, but is listed as “currently unavailable.”

In an editorial this week, The Baltimore Sun asked, “Do we need to send out an Amber Alert for Healthy Holly?”

Among the only copies of the book that have turned up are some 9,000 that were discovered in boxes inside a Baltimore school district warehouse under circumstances that have yet to be explained.

Ms. Pugh initially responded to the scrutiny by telling a reporter from The Sun, which first reported the story, that the newspaper’s inquiry was a “witch hunt.”

The mayor, who did not respond to a request for an interview on Friday, said in a statement that she had self-published the first “Healthy Holly” title in about 2011. Shortly thereafter, she said, she took the book along to a board meeting of the University of Maryland Medical System.

“I recall passing the time by thumbing through the first book before an U.M.M.S. meeting,” Ms. Pugh said in the statement. “One of my colleagues loved it and thought it would help advance children’s health. Despite all that has happened, I am glad that the important messages in the book reached our city’s children.”

The mayor’s misadventure is just the latest installment of crisis in Charm City, which has churned through five police chiefs in four years, suffered a record number of murders, and is a place where teachers must sometimes buy space heaters for their freezing classrooms.

The city has also struggled to provide decent health care and health care education to residents, particularly its children, according to city data.

A 2017 report from the city’s health department found the city’s age-adjusted mortality rate was 40 percent higher than the rest of the state; one in three high school students was either obese or overweight; one in four high school students drank one soda or more every day, but fewer than half ate one or more servings of vegetables. Fewer than half of middle school students, the report said, ate breakfast each day.

Ms. Pugh has written four titles so far: “Healthy Holly: Fruits Come in Colors Like the Rainbow”; “Healthy Holly: Exercising is Fun!”; “Healthy Holly: Not all Vegetables are Green”; and “Healthy Holly: A Healthy Start for Herbie.” She is currently at work on “Healthy Holly: Walking With My Family.”

In recent days, Ms. Pugh has acknowledged that she made various errors, including not listing her book deal with the health care nonprofit on ethics disclosure forms, and neglecting to note a $5,000 contribution from “Healthy Holly” profits to her 2016 mayoral campaign.

“It was an error,” she told reporters this week. “I just feel that we can move forward. I’m not perfect.”

Ms. Pugh has also resigned from the health care company’s board of directors, of which she had been a member since 2001. She said she had “more than enough to do” as mayor. She has also returned $100,000 from the book payments to the medical system.

As part of the fallout, the board has asked Robert A. Chrencik, its chief executive, to take a leave of absence while a independent investigation is conducted into potential conflicts of interest. Two other board members have resigned, and several others have been asked to take temporary leaves of absence, according to the board.

Gov. Larry Hogan of Maryland has called for an independent investigation, saying board members must halt any financial relationship they have with the nonprofit or tender their resignations.

“I was frankly shocked and appalled,” Mr. Hogan, a Republican, told reporters this week, describing his reaction to the “Healthy Holly” book arrangement. “I was outraged.”

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