Catherine Pugh’s attorneys are asking a judge for leniency after the 69-year-old disgraced Baltimore mayor pleaded guilty to her fraudulent “Healthy Holly” scheme, saying the consequences of her crimes already have taken a significant toll on her health, finances and reputation.
“Ms. Pugh has become a tragic figure — an inspiring person dedicated to helping her community who is now a disgraced, unemployed felon, and who has lost everything that she had,” her attorneys wrote in a sentencing memorandum Friday.
They requested a sentence of one year and one day.
The former Democratic mayor pleaded guilty in November to conspiracy and tax evasion after selling her self-published “Healthy Holly” children’s books to several companies that do business with the city, and to the University of Maryland Medical System, where she sat on the board.
Defense attorneys argued that the public would not benefit from Pugh serving a long sentence and noted she has no prior criminal record.
“Such a sentence, coupled with the loss of her entire career, the public dishonor, and serious economic loss that she has and will continue to suffer, would result in a significant punishment for Ms. Pugh’s actions,” they wrote.
Pugh’s book-selling scheme began unraveling in March, when The Baltimore Sun first reported the lucrative deals. She resigned from office in May, after the FBI raided her houses and City Hall office.
A U.S. District Court judge is scheduled to sentence Pugh on Feb. 27.
“The chronology of events since 2011, comprising Pugh’s seven-year scheme to defraud, multiple years of tax evasion, election fraud, and attempted cover-ups, including brazen lies to the public, clearly establishes the deliberateness with which she pursued financial and political gain without a second thought about how it was harming the public’s trust,” wrote Assistant U.S. Attorneys Martin J. Clarke and Leo J. Wise in their own sentencing memo.
Pugh’s attorneys acknowledged that the federal sentencing guidelines for the crimes to which she pleaded guilty recommend a longer sentence, of between 46 and 57 months, but argue “a substantial variance is warranted here.”
Her attorneys say the “collateral consequences” Pugh has lived with since her business dealings were exposed are severe enough to ensure she will not commit further crimes.
Steven Levin, a former federal prosecutor and supervisor who handled public corruption cases in Maryland, said U.S. District Judge Deborah K. Chasanow is “a very serious judge” who will consider all the factors put forward by Pugh’s defense team, in addition to the arguments laid out by the prosecution.
The judge knows the guidelines are “a starting point,” Levin said, and will weigh them against the “general deterrence” that a stiff penalty might mean for other would-be corrupt politicians, as well as the steep price Pugh has paid for her actions in her personal and professional life. Pugh’s past — and her fall — are relevant, Levin said.
“She was a public servant. She did good things for a long time. She made sacrifices for a long time,” Levin said. “She ultimately took advantage of her position. That is why she was convicted. That is why she’ll likely go to prison. But the fact is, she has lost everything. She has been stigmatized.”
Pugh’s attorneys redacted nearly three pages in their memo on the psychological impact of the case on Pugh, and reference a federal report that details the inadequate training of prison staff related to aging inmates and those who need mental health care.
Friends and family say Pugh, who was hospitalized with pneumonia shortly after The Sun began publishing stories on the book deals, has been dealing with health problems.
Her brother, Ardell Crump, wrote in a letter filed with the defense memo that Pugh “has not eaten or slept properly since these tribulations have unfolded,” and the impact is “hindering her emotional and physical well-being.”
Pugh’s attorneys submitted other letters of support for the former mayor from relatives and friends, including some community leaders such as Morgan State University President David Wilson and former U.S. Rep. Kweisi Mfume, who recently won the Democratic nomination in the race to replace the late U.S. Rep. Elijah Cummings.
Mfume wrote that while he is not familiar with all aspects of the case, he knows Pugh well and considers her a friend.
“In looking at all that you must ponder and consider, I don’t know personally if justice is better served by sending her to jail at age 70, or by mandating instead that she spend several years under court-ordered supervision” doing volunteer work, Mfume wrote to the judge.
University of Baltimore Law School professor David Jaros said Pugh’s role as mayor “may ultimately work both to her benefit and detriment” when it comes to the judge’s decision on sentencing.
“On one hand, she has a record of being a public servant and trying to serve the people of Maryland,” he said. “On other hand, there is a deterrent value in making a powerful statement about public corruption, which is something that has been plaguing Baltimore for a long time now.”
Also pleading guilty following the Pugh investigation were her longtime aide, Gary Brown Jr., and Roslyn Wedington, director of a nonprofit Pugh championed. Sentencing hearings have not yet been scheduled for them. No one else has been charged in the case.
Pugh has also been charged in state court with perjury. The Office of the State Prosecutor alleged Pugh broke the law by failing to disclose her Healthy Holly business on financial disclosure forms during her time as a state senator. A hearing in that case is scheduled for March 13 in Anne Arundel County Circuit Court.
Pugh’s attorneys argued she did not begin selling “Healthy Holly” books with malicious intent. They say her business was born out of a “sincere motive by Ms. Pugh to help fight childhood obesity and was not a purported swindle of money driven by greed.” The books feature an African American family, including a girl named Holly, eating healthy foods and exercising.
“Indeed, in hindsight, it is apparent that had Ms. Pugh received proper professional guidance and advice, the sale and distribution of Healthy Holly books could easily have been accomplished in a perfectly appropriate manner,” they wrote.
Prosecutors noted that only some of the books Pugh sold to organizations with business before the city, supposedly for her to donate to Baltimore school children, were delivered to students. According to prosecutors, Pugh’s “personal inventory" of Healthy Holly books never exceeded 8,216 copies. She gave another 34,846 copies away. But through a “three-dimensional” scheme, they say, she resold 132,116 copies for a total of $859,960.
“From the very start, Pugh quickly realized that there was no need to print more than a negligible number of books for herself because the scheme to defraud worked,” prosecutors argued. “No one ever questioned her integrity or the source of the books."
In their 46-page memo, Pugh’s attorneys outlined her rise from a “modest townhouse in Philadelphia” to the Maryland House of Delegates and state Senate to winning her “dream job” as mayor of Baltimore. They include photos of Pugh with her six siblings and a shot of Pugh in her high school graduation garb.
They pointed to the work she did that benefited the people of Baltimore, including helping to start the Baltimore Marathon and founding the Baltimore Design School.
They also reference her “multi-faceted” career in business, radio and publishing. Included in the sentencing memorandum is a copy of a poem she wrote entitled “Politician.”
The first two lines read: “It was different for me … for I had come to serve … Filled with courage and a lot of nerve …”