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Trail to Catherine Pugh started with obscure aide’s campaign finance violation

Federal agents leave Baltimore city hall with some boxes in April 2019. (The Daily Record / Adam Bednar)

Federal agents leave Baltimore city hall with some boxes in April 2019. (The Daily Record / Adam Bednar)

Gary Brown Jr. was working to prepare his space in the Lowe House Office Building in Annapolis on Jan. 9, 2017, ahead of what he expected to be his first day as a member of the House of Delegates.

A former legislative aide to Mayor Catherine Pugh when she served in the state Senate, Brown was slated to be sworn into office the next day before the start of the General Assembly session.

This item is part of The Daily Record’s coverage of the Catherine Pugh "Healthy Holly" scandal.
Sentencing: Former Baltimore mayor Pugh sentenced to 3 years in prison | After sentencing, Pugh says she hopes to rebuild her life
Timeline: A timeline of the Catherine Pugh scandal
Earlier coverage: Pugh pleads guilty to conspiracy and tax evasion charges | In a hushed courtroom, a stoic Pugh admits to her crimes | Former Baltimore mayor Pugh indicted on 11 federal counts | Indictment renews focus on UMMS self-dealing scandal | Trail to Catherine Pugh started with obscure aide’s campaign finance violation | Read the indictment | Watch the U.S. Attorney's news conference | Ex-Pugh aide’s swearing-in for House delayed following indictment | Pugh aide found guilty of campaign finance violations

On that Monday, however, those plans came to a screeching halt. It was in that office, which Brown never officially occupied, where he found out he’d been charged with six campaign finance violations stemming from his role in Pugh’s mayoral campaign the year before.

That indictment proved to be the end of Brown’s fledgling political career, but it was just the start of what was to come. Eventually, the campaign finance violations that initially ensnared Brown would lead to a federal investigation that toppled Baltimore Mayor Catherine Pugh.

The federal inquiry into Pugh’s “Healthy Holly” children’s book deals would end up with federal agents swarming City Hall, a pneumonia-plagued Pugh conducting a surreal news conference where she displayed baby clothing as proof of her innocence, Pugh’s eventual resignation in May and then on Wednesday U.S. Attorney Robert K. Hur’s announcement of indictments of Pugh.

“It’s safe to say that the investigation was underway at that time,” Hur said while discussing how Brown’s previous conviction led to probe of Pugh and her indictment on federal fraud and tax evasion charges.

In the indictment federal prosecutors accuse Brown, 38, and Pugh, 69, starting in 2011 of soliciting nonprofits to purchase a series of “Healthy Holly” children’s books under the premise of donating them to Baltimore City Public Schools. They would then resell the same books to a third party and funnel the funds into Pugh’s two mayoral campaigns.

The books that were printed were squirreled away in various buildings throughout Baltimore, including Pugh’s home, City Hall and the War Memorial building. The indictments also accuse Brown and other staffers of giving fraudulently obtained books as promotional items for Pugh’s campaigns.

The investigation into Brown’s and Pugh’s campaign finance scheme also ended up entangling Roslyn Wedington, who was executive director of the nonprofit Maryland Center for Adult Training Inc. where Pugh served on the board of directors. Brown had changed Wedington’s employee status to prevent her salary being garnished for outstanding student loan debt and medical bills.

The grand jury indictment returned on Nov. 14 charged Brown and Wedington, who pleaded guilty to conspiracy and tax fraud. Brown pleaded guilty earlier this month to four counts related to the Pugh investigation.

Following Pugh’s election as mayor in 2016, Brown, was nominated to fill the vacancy in the House of Delegates created by then Del. Barbara Robinson’s appointment to Pugh’s Senate seat.

Brown was set to be sworn into office when the State Prosecutor Emmet Davitt announced a grand jury had indicted the would-be legislator on campaign finance violations on behalf of Pugh.

Brown was charged with making straw man donations to subvert campaign contribution limits that cap individual donations at $6,000 per four-year campaign cycle.

The scheme involved Brown depositing roughly $18,000 in cash in total in the bank accounts of various family members. Those family members in turn made matching contributions to Pugh’s campaign.

Pugh hired him in November 2016 as the deputy director of special events. The job included an office on the same floor as the mayor at City Hall.

Brown in May 2017 was found guilty in Baltimore City Circuit Court of two campaign finance violations. The accusations ultimately resulted in Brown’s appointment to the General Assembly being rescinded and Nick Mosby’s appointment to the House seat.

But despite his legal woes, Brown kept his job at City Hall. The mayor kept Brown on and defended her decision in a news conference calling Brown a “good employee.”

Those who know and worked with Brown described him as friendly, hard-working and loyal to Pugh. As a legislative staffer his duties included arranging District 40 delegation meetings, and handling the logistics of organizing bus trips to bring constituents to Annapolis and meet with their lawmakers during session.

In his position at City Hall, following his initial conviction, he reportedly worked hard. As a special events organizer he handled arranging art exhibits in City Hall and the details involved with guest speakers and visitors.

As a Pugh campaign aide Brown, who also served on the Democratic Central Committee, served as a sort of gatekeeper to the candidate and managed the relationships with major campaign donors. Despite his deep experience in city politics, his nomination to serve as delegate in District 40 caught some by surprise.

Sen. Antonio Hayes, who holds the Senate seat that once belonged to Pugh, said Brown didn’t come across as someone positioning themselves for public office.

“I was shocked when he was named to the House of Delegates because he really felt like someone who was more behind the scenes,” Hayes said.

Attempts to contact Brown were unsuccessful. The west Baltimore address listed on state court documents as his home was vacant and boarded shut. Brown, according to sources, moved to a condo with his partner and a sick grandmother as he was preparing to take office in Annapolis.

The Daily Record’s government reporter Bryan P. Sears contributed to this article.

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