BALTIMORE, Md. – Years before taking the office she'd resign from in disgrace, Catherine Pugh had a vision to see Baltimore “prosper and grow.”
In a 2005 self-published collection of poetry, the woman who would become Baltimore's mayor wrote about her solutions for the city’s challenges and dream of seeing the community unite. Her verse called out elected officials who think “they can play you and even forget ... / A promise they made or a commitment unkept ... / They can disappear at the blink of an eye ... / And all that was said ... considered a lie ..."
Fifteen years later, a federal judge is weighing the contrast described by those poems — commitment to public service and self-interest — to decide how much time Pugh will spend in prison.
The veteran Democratic politician will learn her future Thursday when she is sentenced for leading a scheme that sold her other self-published books to nonprofits and foundations to promote her political career and fund her run for mayor.
Pugh, 69, pleaded guilty in November to federal conspiracy and tax evasion charges in a deal with prosecutors, who have asked the judge to impose a prison term of nearly five years. Attorneys for Pugh, who was elected mayor in 2016, have suggested a sentence of 366 days.
Prosecutors say Pugh, helped by aide Gary Brown Jr., double-sold the illustrated “Healthy Holly” children’s books and failed 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. She resigned under pressure in May.
The University of Maryland Medical System — one of the state’s largest employers — was Pugh’s biggest book customer. The 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.
Pugh had previously served in the state Senate, where she 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 and described the deal as a "regrettable mistake" after the scheme was uncovered.
Brown and another Pugh associate, Roslyn Wedington, have pleaded guilty to conspiracy to commit wire fraud, conspiracy to defraud the government and filing a false tax return. Their sentencing hearings have not been scheduled.
Baltimore and state officials have been closing loopholes exposed by the scandal. Maryland's largest city now requires all elected officials to fully report their business interests. And under a new state law, members of the health system's board are barred from getting contracts without a bidding process and from leveraging their position for personal gain.
The scandal revealed that about a third of the board members received compensation through the network's murky arrangements with their businesses. The system described some of the purchases of Pugh's books as “grants” in federal filings.
Although the sentencing hearing this week will wrap up the federal case, Pugh still must face a state perjury charge for failing to include her ownership of Healthy Holly LLC in financial disclosure forms filed with the Maryland State Ethics Commission. The charge carries a maximum penalty of 10 years in prison.
Dozens of people, including faith leaders, friends and relatives, have submitted letters to the federal judge in support of Pugh. Kweisi Mfume, the former NAACP leader and Democratic nominee for Maryland's 7th Congressional District, wrote that ordering Pugh to spend several years under supervised release voluntarily working with nonprofits and other organizations would “have more value” than sending her to prison.
In a sentencing memorandum filed in mid-February in federal court, Pugh's attorneys cited some of her poetry when explaining how she became an author. They offered the poem “Politician” from her book “Mind Garden: Where Thoughts Grow” to show her commitment to public service.
“It was different for me … for I had come to serve … / Filled with courage and a lot of nerve …” the court document shows. “I didn’t need to be scripted or told what to say … / For it is inside of me and not a part in a play … / I could answer any question … ease any concern … / For I was sharing what I knew and what I had learned …”