ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:
Baltimore mayor Catherine Pugh is taking an indefinite leave of absence. Her office says the mayor has been battling pneumonia for weeks, and she needs to focus on her health. But this announcement comes while she's at the center of a scandal. Pugh sold hundreds of thousands of copies of her self-published children's books to two private companies over which she held enormous power. She never disclosed those deals. Now Maryland's governor is formally calling on state officials to open a criminal investigation.
NPR's Brakkton Booker is covering the story and is here in the studio. Hi, Brakkton.
BRAKKTON BOOKER, BYLINE: Hey, Ari.
SHAPIRO: OK, explain. There are two companies here. First University of Maryland Medical System - what exactly did Pugh, the mayor, allegedly do here with this company?
BOOKER: So Mayor Pugh reportedly had an undisclosed business contract with this private nonprofit. Now, that business oversees more than a dozen hospitals in Maryland and in the Baltimore area. And the thing is Pugh served on the board dating back years, even when she was serving as a state senator. She only stepped down from the board last month after reports from the Baltimore Sun detailed this business contract, and questions began to swirl around it.
SHAPIRO: And the central issue here is the sale of these self-published children's books to the hospitals which she made hundreds of thousands of dollars off of.
BOOKER: Not only that. She also wielded great power as her position of mayor and also as a board member. So she was governing the management of these hospitals but did not disclose the fact that she was - also had the side deal with the books.
SHAPIRO: OK, and there's a second company involved, too. Tell us about that.
BOOKER: The second company is Kaiser Permanente. And in yet another Baltimore Sun report that dropped on Monday, it found that Pugh also entered into a business deal with the health giant. Now, starting in 2015, Kaiser Permanente began paying some $114,000 for these "Healthy Holly" books that the mayor self-published. And in 2017, the city's budget board, which Pugh sits on, awarded Kaiser a multi-million-dollar contract to provide health coverage for city employees. And as far as we know, Pugh did not recuse herself from that vote.
SHAPIRO: OK, you mentioned the "Healthy Holly" books. Not a lot of big-city mayors self-publish children's books. Tell us about "Healthy Holly."
BOOKER: This is this is true. Mayor Pugh self-published "Healthy Holly," which is about a young black girl who promotes healthy eating, exercise and is overall supposed to be a role model particularly for inner-city kids, those that live in Baltimore. Now, Pugh apologized to the residents of Baltimore after the scandal kind of really took off. She held a press conference last Thursday. She says, I'm really sorry for upsetting folks in Baltimore. But that did not stop the governor from asking state prosecutors to look into the book sales as a course of a criminal matter here.
SHAPIRO: And yet when the mayor's office announced that she was taking this indefinite leave of absence, they didn't reference the scandal at all. They said this is just about her health.
BOOKER: They only referenced the fact that she had been battling pneumonia for weeks, nothing about the book scandal, nothing about these contracts, nothing about the hundreds of thousands of dollars she received over the years.
SHAPIRO: So who's filling in as mayor while she's out?
BOOKER: That roll's going to City Council President Jack Young. And he says that, look; I am here to make sure that Baltimore has a steady hand. But he's also said that he is not going to run in 2020 when the job is up. Here's what he told reporters today.
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JACK YOUNG: Everybody knows that my dream job at one time was to be mayor. But I found out that the presidency of the council is the best job in the world.
YOUNG: And I'm just going to do this as a placeholder, and I will be running for president of the City Council of Baltimore.
BOOKER: So, Ari, Baltimore has been through a lot. A lot of folks say, like, oh, here we go again. Baltimore is making negative headlines - four straight years of 300 homicides, the Freddie Gray riots. And just last week, a former police commissioner was sentenced for not paying his federal taxes. So Baltimore has really been going through some things, and the dynamics between the residents and city officials has really been strained. And I think folks in Baltimore, especially folks I talked to today, say this is just yet another instance where politicians are kind of failing the people of Baltimore.
SHAPIRO: NPR's Brakkton Booker, thanks a lot.
BOOKER: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.