Former Baltimore mayor and “Healthy Holly” author Catherine Pugh, who wrote her own downfall by fraudulently selling children’s books to organizations with which she was politically connected, was sentenced to three years in federal prison on Thursday.
Pugh must also forfeit the Baltimore home she holed-up in last year as the scandal grew. The home is part of a $669,688 forfeiture order imposed on her in addition to the $411,948 restitution she must repay after her release.
The sentence punctuated the spectacular downfall of a major American city mayor whose transgressions made national headlines.
Pugh resigned in disgrace last year after revelations of a scheme that federal prosecutors said began when she was a Maryland senator and continued until agents raided her home and Baltimore City Hall in April.
On Thursday, Pugh apologized to the citizens of Baltimore and her supporters during brief remarks to the media, saying she has “learned a lot of lessons.”
“I will take those lessons with me. I will continue to listen, learn, and I don’t think this is the last chapter for Catherine Pugh,” she said. “I look forward to regaining my strength, my zeal, my love for the people of the city.”
Pugh, a Democrat, pleaded guilty to four charges of tax evasion and fraud in November.
Prosecutors had alleged that she sold thousands of copies of books but never printed enough to actually deliver on the contracts she earned through political connections.
U.S. District Court Judge Deborah K. Chasanow had to weigh two competing sentence recommendations for the nearly 70-year-old former mayor. Prosecutors had recommended a sentence of nearly five years. Her defense attorneys asked for a sentence of one year and one day. The extra day would have made her eligible for early release based on good behavior.
Pugh’s attorneys argued that the public embarrassment and financial ruin she has already endured, her years of service to the community, and her age should outweigh the crimes she committed.
Pugh told the judge before the ruling that she took “full responsibility” for her own shortcomings.
“I am disappointed in myself,” she said. “I did turn a blind eye … because I did that, my life will never be the same.”
At least 77 letters were submitted to the court on Pugh’s behalf. Many asked the judge to consider her “high moral character” and public service while weighing her crimes. Five people spoke on behalf of Pugh, including Kurt Schmoke, a former federal and state prosecutor and Baltimore mayor, now president of the University of Baltimore.
Prominent Baltimore leaders, church and family members, and mentees like a former security guard, who told the court Pugh’s encouragement was the reason he became a Baltimore police officer, wrote letters.
Kweisi Mfume, who won the special Democratic primary to replace the late Rep. Elijah Cummings in Congress in a heavily Democratic district, suggested in his letter to the court that no jail time might be most appropriate.
“I don’t know personally if justice is better served by sending her to jail at age 70, or by mandating instead, that she spend several years under court ordered supervision,” Mfume wrote.
“This option seems to me at least, to have more value. Her skills and the accumulated knowledge she has gained over the years could be of valuable assistance to those community service groups, charities, and organizations in need of experienced assistance.”
Other prominent Baltimoreans who urged the court to show leniency included Quincey Gamble, executive director of the Maryland Democratic Party, and David Wilson, president of Pugh’s alma mater, Morgan State University. Wilson told the court the charges she pleaded guilty to have taken a toll.
“One thing is certain from interactions I have had with Catherine Pugh: She understands the tremendous mistake she made, which has resulted in the loss of the job that she has coveted for years,” Wilson wrote. “Her mistake has taken a toll on her health and her overall well-being.”
In her ruling, Chasanow said she considered Pugh’s past good deeds and age, but saw a disconnect in the positive perception some have of Pugh. She said that she hadn’t heard an explanation for the crimes that made sense.
“I find it ironic that so many people continue to laud her public work,” Chasanow said.
“It’s astonishing to me. I think we are all shocked.”
In Annapolis, where Pugh served in the Maryland Senate and House before being elected Baltimore mayor in 2016, some Democratic legislators have called for leniency, including Sen. Jill Carter, D-Baltimore.
Multiple Republican leaders were unwilling to comment before Thursday’s sentencing, including Gov. Larry Hogan.
Hogan has introduced legislation to increase penalties for public corruption in this legislative session; he declined to comment to Capital News Service through his spokeswoman.
Republican leaders in the General Assembly were also not willing to comment this week to Capital News Service.
Senate Minority Leader J.B. Jennings, R-Baltimore and Harford counties, declined to comment Tuesday, calling Pugh a friend. House Minority Leader Nicholaus Kipke, R-Anne Arundel, also declined to comment, telling the Capital News Service he was worried he would upset other lawmakers.
“It’s too hostile around here,” he said.
House Minority Whip Kathy Szeliga, R-Baltimore and Harford counties, was willing, though. She said Pugh deserved a tough sentence.
“Sending a message that corrupt politicians are not above the law is important,” Szeliga said Tuesday.
”Using children to defraud people from your power of authority, being a senator or mayor, that’s far worse than what (others convicted of corruption) did.”
Pugh ultimately fraudulently resold 132,116 copies of “Healthy Holly “ books to the University of Maryland Medical System and other organizations for a total of $859,960, according to documents filed by federal prosecutors. U.S. Attorney Robert K. Hur said the sentence sends a message to public officials.
“Baltimore City faces many pressing issues, and we need our leaders to place the interests of the citizens above their own,” Hur said in a statement. “Catherine Pugh betrayed the public trust for her personal gain and now faces three years in federal prison, where there is no parole—ever.”
It is unclear when Pugh will have to voluntarily surrender to federal authorities. She must notify the court by April 13 if she has not been notified. After incarceration, she will have to serve three years of supervised release.
It is unclear how Pugh will be able to repay the court-ordered restitution of $411,948 once she is released. Her lawyers said she is financially ruined.
Chasanow set her repayment plan at a standard temporary amount.
If left unchanged, Pugh will have to make monthly payments of $100.
By Ryan E. Little