Yet, as she was sentenced Thursday to three years in prison after pleading guilty to fraud, tax evasion and conspiracy, Pugh personified the dysfunction that has long permeated Maryland’s largest city and sown distrust among its 600,000 residents.
“This became a very large fraud,” U.S. District Judge Deborah K. Chasanow said before punishing Pugh for using her self-published “Healthy Holly” children’s books to generate more than $800,000 in income while failing to deliver tens of thousands of the books to youngsters.
The fraudulent sales to entities with business before city and state government helped fund straw donations to Pugh’s political campaigns and allowed her to buy and renovate a second home in Baltimore.
Responding to defense attorneys’ contention that the public humiliation the former mayor endured should be considered as part of the punishment, Chasanow said, “Yes, the impact on Ms. Pugh has been great. But the impact on the city is also very great and very tragic.”
In addition to three years in prison, the judge imposed three years of probation and ordered Pugh to pay $411,948 in restitution and forfeit more than $600,000, including her home in Baltimore and nearly $17,800 from her campaign account.
Steve Silverman, Pugh’s attorney, asked for a sentence of one year, describing the 69-year-old former mayor as a “broken woman” whose crimes were out of character for someone who has devoted decades to public service.
But prosecutors, who requested a five-year sentence, countered that the duration of Pugh’s crimes — seven years — deserved the stiffest penalty.
“She corruptly ran her illegal side business out of her seat of power,” Assistant U.S. Attorney Martin Clarke said. He described Pugh’s scheme as “something right out of a mobster movie.”
Pugh, her voice cracking as she addressed Chasanow, expressed remorse and said she takes “full responsibility for all I’ve done.” Wearing a long white dress as she stood before the judge, Pugh said, “I beg for forgiveness.”
Her remarks echoed those she made in a presentencing video her attorneys submitted to Chasanow on Wednesday.
“I am sorry,” Pugh said in the video, seated against a plain black backdrop as soft piano music played in the background. “I don’t know any other words that could be stronger.”
Clarke cited the video in his remarks to the judge, contending that Pugh, even at sentencing, was using “her skills to manipulate the message.”
Pugh’s sentencing occurred as Baltimore is enmeshed in another period of political uncertainty.
Her successor, Bernard C. “Jack” Young, the former City Council president who became mayor when Pugh resigned in May, is vying against six major opponents in the April 28 Democratic primary. The field includes City Council President Brandon Scott and former mayor Sheila Dixon, who is attempting a second comeback after a scandal forced her to resign a decade ago.
As Pugh’s sentencing date approached, dozens of her friends and relatives pleaded for leniency in letters to the judge. Her supporters include Kweisi Mfume, who is campaigning to fill the vacant House seat of the late Elijah E. Cummings (D-Md.), and former mayor Kurt L. Schmoke, who spoke on Pugh’s behalf at the sentencing hearing.
Pugh was involved in Baltimore politics and government for more than 30 years, working for then-Mayor William Donald Schaefer during the 1970s and then winning election to the council in 1999. In 2005, then-Gov. Robert Ehrlich (R) appointed her to a vacant House of Delegates seat.
Pugh served in the state Senate from 2007 until her 2016 election as mayor. At one point in Annapolis, then-Senate President Thomas V. “Mike” Miller (D-Calvert) appointed her Senate majority leader.
During the 2015 riot that followed Freddie Gray’s funeral after his fatal injury in police custody, Pugh and Cummings spent hours at the epicenter of the unrest trying to calm raucous crowds.
Later that year, Pugh announced her campaign for mayor.
As part of her appeal to voters, Pugh declared that Baltimore “needs a leader who will serve with honesty, integrity and transparency. That’s who I am, and this is the job for me.”
Pugh, a stylish dresser and onetime marketing executive, tried as mayor to focus attention on new development projects in Baltimore. But her cheerleading often was eclipsed by violence that drove the city’s homicide toll above 300 by the end of her first year in office.
Despite the continuing carnage, Pugh retained support in the city’s business community and appeared headed for reelection when the “Healthy Holly” scandal erupted a year ago. Her fall began when the Baltimore Sun reported that the University of Maryland Medical System, on whose board of directors she sat, had granted her a no-bid $500,000 contract for 100,000 copies of her book.
Thousands of copies of the book — intended to promote nutrition and exercise — ended up in a warehouse or in Pugh’s houses and offices. Gary Brown Jr., a Pugh aide, and Roslyn Wedington, a city employee, were implicated in the scheme, pleading guilty to fraud conspiracy and tax evasion.
After the FBI raided her homes, Pugh resigned from office, apologizing for the “harm I have caused to the image of Baltimore.”
As she arrived in court Thursday, she appeared visibly shaken, briefly turning to gaze at the more than 100 spectators who filled the gallery as her attorney patted her on her back. More than three hours later, as she departed the courthouse, Pugh paused before a phalanx of television cameras and smiled.
“Nobody loves Baltimore more than I do,” she said, adding that she looks “forward to rebuilding my life and getting my life back together.”
“It’s not the last you'll see of Catherine Pugh,” the former mayor promised before disappearing into the back of a black SUV.