Book scheme gets ex-mayor 3 years in prison
BALTIMORE – The disgraced former mayor of Baltimore was sentenced to three years in federal prison Thursday for arranging fraudulent sales of her self-published children’s books to nonprofits and foundations to promote her political career and fund her run for the city’s highest office.
Catherine Pugh spoke through tears for about 10 minutes before her sentencing in federal court in Baltimore. The 69-year-old veteran Democratic politician apologized and said that “no one is more disappointed than me.”
The scandal has shaken Maryland’s largest city, which for years has struggled with grinding poverty, political mismanagement, record crime rates and police abuses that led to massive riots. And it made a mockery of Pugh’s inaugural promise to restore trust in Baltimore’s leaders.
Pugh was elected mayor in 2016 and resigned under pressure in May as authorities investigated bulk sales of her “Healthy Holly” paperbacks, which netted her hundreds of thousands of dollars.
Federal authorities accused Pugh of double selling the books, keeping many for self-promotion purposes and failing to deliver them to institutions they were purchased for, including the Baltimore City Public Schools. Pugh used the proceeds to fund straw donations to her mayoral campaign and buy a new house.
Pugh was also sentenced on Thursday to serve three years of supervised release after getting out of prison and was ordered to pay more than $411,000 in restitution and to forfeit more than $669,000 to the government. She pleaded guilty to federal conspiracy and tax evasion charges in November. She will be notified by April 13 when she must surrender and begin her sentence.
Prosecutors had asked U.S. District Judge Deborah K. Chasanow to sentence the former mayor to nearly five years in prison, while her attorneys suggested a term of one year and a day.
“I think the first thing I should do is apologize to the citizens of Baltimore who put their faith and trust in me as their mayor, and to all the people who put their faith and trust in me as state senator and as delegate,” Pugh said outside the courthouse after the sentencing. “Nobody loves Baltimore more than I do … and I know that Baltimore will move forward.”
Prior to the hearing, a visibly stressed Pugh teared up when she turned around in her seat and saw friends and others sitting in the packed courtroom. Her attorney handed her a box of tissues and briefly rubbed her back.
Dozens of people submitted letters to the federal judge pleading for leniency, including Kweisi Mfume, the former NAACP leader and Democratic nominee for Maryland’s 7th Congressional District. Five people spoke in support of Pugh during the hearing, including her former high school teacher.
But U.S. District Judge Deborah K. Chasanow said she found it ironic that Pugh’s supporters flaunted her commitment to public service.
“It was precisely that reputation for good work that enabled her to commit those offenses,” Chasnow said.
Baltimore City Council President Brandon M. Scott called the sentencing “a somber moment for Baltimore,” saying in a written statement that Pugh’s acts “seriously undermined the public’s trust in our local government.”
“Now, on the day of her sentencing, both she and our city have an opportunity to move forward,” Scott said. “This moment reminds us that, as elected officials, we have one job: to serve the people, period.”
Pugh, helped by longtime aide Gary Brown Jr., carefully carried out the “Healthy Holly” scheme over more than seven years, starting when she was a Maryland state senator and into her tenure as Baltimore’s mayor. Brown and another Pugh associate, Roslyn Wedington, await sentencing after pleading guilty to conspiracy and tax fraud.
A detailed accounting of the sales presented by prosecutors revealed that organizations paid Pugh $859,960 for orders of more than 132,100 copies. But only about 73,200 copies were printed. In their sentencing memorandum, prosecutors said Pugh’s personal inventory of books never exceeded 8,216 copies, but she resold them repeatedly through the elaborate scheme.
The University of Maryland Medical System – one of the state’s largest employers – was Pugh’s biggest book customer, and will receive $400,000 of the $411,000 in restitution payments. The remaining $11,000 will go to the Maryland Automobile Insurance Fund.
The medical system paid her a total of $500,000 for 100,000 copies that were meant to be distributed to schoolchildren, but about 60,000 of those books were sent to a city warehouse and a Pugh office where thousands were removed to give to other customers. Prosecutors say Pugh never delivered the other 40,000 books the health system purchased for city schools.
While serving in the state Senate, Pugh sat on a committee that funded the medical system. She also sat on the hospital network’s board from 2001 until the scandal erupted in March. The former mayor returned the last $100,000 payment.
Other Pugh customers include CareFirst BlueCross BlueShield and Kaiser Permanente, which insure city employees. Some of their multiyear, multimillion-dollar contracts were awarded before Pugh took office, and some were awarded afterward, prosecutors said in a court filing.