Catherine Pugh entered courtroom 1A of the Edward A. Garmatz United States District Courthouse in downtown Baltimore Thursday morning wearing a white dress, black boots and her head held high.
Over the next two hours, her attorneys, and Pugh herself, portrayed the former Baltimore mayor as broken, a bed-ridden recluse who spent most of the past 10 months curled up in a ball sobbing. Attorney Steve Silverman described his client as overwhelmed by guilt and remorse.
“Now she stands before you a broken woman,” Silverman told U.S. District Court Judge Deborah K. Chasanow.
Since resigning as mayor in May 2019 amid the burgeoning “Healthy Holly” scandal, Pugh has been besieged by news media camped outside her house, with radio “shock jocks” circling her home with a bullhorn demanding she “come out,” Silverman said.
Ridiculed and subjected to “unprecedented shame,” Pugh hid away and became a “self-imposed prisoner” in her west Baltimore home since last April, he said.
“She deserves it. She earned it, but it broke her,” Silverman said of Pugh’s treatment. “It absolutely broke her.”
Throughout the hearing, Pugh remained mostly poised, facing forward, her left elbow on her chair’s arm and her hand on her chin, as Silverman recounted her accomplishments and good deeds.
Calling Pugh “a tragic figure,” Silverman argued that she deserved to serve less than a year in prison.
“In my core I view the government’s sentencing request … to be cruel and unnecessary,” he said. Prosecutors had asked that Pugh be sentenced to 57 months behind bars.
Pugh’s stoic demeanor broke when her high school teacher Argentine S. Craig slowly walked to the lectern at the center of the courtroom. Craig told the judge: “I want you to know about Catherine Pugh. I love Catherine Elizabeth Crump Pugh.”
As Craig started speaking, Pugh looked away and cried. Her attorneys handed her tissues and rubbed her shoulders as Craig continued.
“I’m proud of Catherine Elizabeth Crump Pugh,” Craig said.
The portrayal of Pugh provided by supporters was in stark contrast to that of the prosecution. The version of Pugh that prosecutors presented to Chasanow was of a scheming, conniving politician.
Calling the facts of the case nothing less than shocking, Assistant U.S. Attorney Martin Clarke described Pugh’s scheme of double-selling “Healthy Holly” children’s books as the kind of contrivance found in a Hollywood script.
“It’s like something out of a mobster movie,” Clarke said.
Pugh used multiple businesses — GB Consulting, Healthy Holly LLC and 2 Chic Boutique, the consignment shop she owned with Comptroller Joan Pratt — in an elaborate effort to shield her activities, Clarke said.
Clarke also raised the possibility that Pugh possibly altered the outcome of the 2016 Democratic mayoral primary by pumping $400,000 in “Healthy Holly” proceeds into her campaign account.
“It’s simply shocking just how much Ms. Pugh violated the public’s trust,” Clarke said.
After hearing both sides, Chasanow took a long pause to organize her thoughts. She apologized for her voice, took a sip from a cup and began methodically reviewing the crimes and the sentencing guidelines for each.
Chasanow said she found the defense’s assertion that “Healthy Holly” was not launched with criminal intent plausible and believed it “kind of evolved” into a criminal scheme over time. The overall scheme also didn’t impress the judge as particularly complex.
By and large, however, the judge found merit in the sentencing sought by prosecutors.
It was ironic, Chasanow said, that so many people sought leniency on Pugh’s behalf by citing her public service when it was exactly that public service, she said, that enabled the scheme.
Considering the impact Pugh’s crime had on a struggling city trying to rebound from the riots less than five years ago, Chasanow sentenced Pugh, who will be 70 next week, to 36 months in jail.
“The impact on the city is very great and very tragic,” Chasanow said.
After the sentencing, U.S. Attorney Robert K. Hur said he respected the three-year sentence even though it wasn’t as stiff as what his team had sought.
“Holding public office is a rare privilege, an opportunity to serve community and get things done to help our community. Unfortunately, the type of fraud and public corruption that Ms. Pugh committed, and was sentenced to three years in prison for today, undermines everyone’s faith in government,” Hur said.
A little while later, Pugh exited the courthouse with her legal team and for the first time since last March spoke with reporters. She insisted she never meant for “Healthy Holly” to turn into a criminal endeavor.
“This is a time for me to rebuild my life,” she said.