Baltimore’s police commissioner. The cops from a rogue squad. Even the mayor herself. All of them convicted or put away this year by assistant U.S. attorneys in Baltimore.
To outsiders, these big cases may seem to end 2019 as a banner year for federal prosecutors in the District of Maryland. But this district famously brought down Vice President Spiro Agnew in 1973, and former federal prosecutors say public corruption cases are, quite simply, what the office does.
“If it wasn’t already on the map, it should have been. It’s the only district that indicted a sitting vice president,” said James Ulwick, who worked for the office in the 1980s. “It has a history that can be put up against anybody.”
The charges trace back to her “Healthy Holly” children’s books. Prosecutors said the books were little more than a charade — the pages contained spelling and grammar blunders — for Pugh to get rich, promote her political career, and fund her campaign for mayor. She accepted payments without ever delivering books. She double-sold copies, too.
“The Pugh case is very much in the image of this office,” said Stephen Sachs, the U.S. attorney for Maryland from 1967 to 1970. “We felt we were in business to uncover things like this."
U.S. Attorney for Maryland Robert Hur has praised his team for pursing the case “relentlessly." Hur said they will ask the judge to sentence her to five years in federal prison.
Pugh resigned in May. Two other people charged in the “Healthy Holly” scandal have agreed to plead guilty. The case has played out as yet another calculating, slow-burn investigation, and follows a familiar pattern. Prosecutors routinely secure guilty pleas from co-defendants, then use the information to go after bigger fish.
It’s the same methodical approach they used to put away the corrupt Gun Trace Task Force: one officer, then another. By the end, eight former officers had been convicted of racketeering and sentenced to federal prison. Six of them pleaded guilty; two were convicted at trial. They received prison sentences ranging from seven to 25 years.
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Still, some defense attorneys have criticized these prosecutors as being hard-liners, men and women who push for the toughest prison sentences possible. And in September, federal appeals judges found the office had gone too far in seizing tens of thousands of emails between attorneys and clients as they continue to prosecute Baltimore defense lawyer Ken Ravenell. They charged Ravenell in a federal drug conspiracy case.
The District of Maryland is one of 94 U.S. attorney’s offices around the country; one for each federal judicial district.
The Southern District of New York — which has jurisdiction over Wall Street — remains the most prestigious office. With 225 prosecutors, it’s also twice as large as the Maryland office. The New York prosecutors are portrayed in the Showtime drama “Billions," and they brought down President Donald Trump’s personal attorney, Michael Cohen.
“We saw ourselves as a much smaller version, obviously, of the Southern District,” said Sachs. “This [Maryland] is regarded as one of the premier offices."
Here, prosecutors brought the case against Agnew 46 years ago. The vice president pleaded no contest to the charge of tax evasion in federal court in Baltimore after prosecutors assembled — and presented in court — a 40-page list of other transgressions they said he committed, including accepting bribes in exchange for contracts.
Today, there’s a photo in the conference room of former U.S. Attorney George Beall and his small staff who indicted a vice president. Just downstairs, the prosecutors came this week to announce they had indicted a mayor.