Former Baltimore Mayor Catherine Pugh was sentenced to three years in prison for fraud and tax evasion Thursday.
U.S. District Court Judge Deborah K. Chasanow handed down the punishment to Pugh, who pleaded guilty last year to four counts involving conspiracy and tax evasion. The charges stemmed from Pugh’s sales of her self-published “Healthy Holly” children’s books to entities and companies doing business with the state and city.
Chasanow also sentenced Pugh to serve three years of supervised release after she leaves prison and ordered her to pay more than $411,000 in restitution and forfeit $669,000 in cash and property.
“I have yet, frankly, to hear any explanation that makes any sense,” Chasanow said of Pugh’s misconduct. “This was not a tiny mistake (or) lapse of judgment. This became a very large fraud.”
Federal sentencing guidelines recommended 46 to 57 months in prison. Prosecutors were seeking the top guidelines sentence, while Pugh’s attorneys asked for a sentence of one year and one day with a lengthy period of supervised release.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Martin Clarke called Pugh’s case “shocking.”
“It’s shocking that these crimes were not committed one time, but over a (period) of time,” Clarke said. “It’s simply shocking just how much Ms. Pugh has violated the public’s trust.”
Pugh began selling her “Healthy Holly” books in 2010 and formed Healthy Holly LLC in 2011, when she was a state senator. The books were promoted and sold to nonprofits, including the University of Maryland Medical System, with the understanding that they would be donated on behalf of the nonprofit to Baltimore city public school students.
The books were never distributed to children but instead were moved around the city and resold to other organizations or handed out by Pugh at events. Pugh’s book sales also corresponded with election cycles when she was on the ballot and were used to fund her campaigns.
Pugh also failed to pay income tax on her Healthy Holly earnings and did not disclose her interest in Healthy Holly LLC on state ethics forms.
“She corruptly ran her illegal side business out of these seats of powers without conducting the people’s business as fully as she was supposed to,” Clarke said.
Steven D. Silverman, one of Pugh’s attorneys, said Pugh has been suffering for the last year as she has faced intense scrutiny and public shaming.
“She was curled up in a ball, never leaving her bed, in total despair,” Silverman said. “She has been a self-imposed prisoner in her own home.”
Silverman described Pugh as a “broken woman” and a “tragic figure.”
Expressing his concern for Pugh’s physical and mental health if she received the government’s recommended sentence, Silverman called it cruel and unnecessary.
“I submit she deserves something, but she does not deserve that,” he said.
A tearful Pugh addressed the court before the announcement of her sentence, apologizing to the city, her supporters, friends and family.
“While I have done some good things, they will forever be overshadowed by what I’ve done,” she said. “I stand here to tell you that I am disappointed in myself.”
In recent weeks, several notable city leaders, including Morgan State University President David Wilson, former mayor Kurt Schmoke and Patrick Clayborn, the senior pastor at Bethel AME Church, sent letters asking Chasanow for leniency in sentencing. Pugh’s supporters praised her decades of community and public service and repeatedly emphasized that she is more than the actions that brought her before the court.
Chasanow pushed back on those “lauding the reputation” of Pugh in the community, pointing out that it was that very reputation that allowed her to perpetuate her fraud.
Clarke said the letters to the court show a “dissonance” in how Pugh was perceived publicly and privately, and emphasized the importance of sending a deterrent message with her sentence.
“There is a very steep price to pay for acting corruptly while in public office,” he said.