What’s the right sentence for Catherine Pugh? You be the judge. | COMMENTARY

Former Baltimore mayor Catherine Pugh leaves the federal courthouse after pleading guilty to conspiracy and tax evasion charges related to her Healthy Holly books. At left is longtime friend Paul Coates.
Former Baltimore mayor Catherine Pugh leaves the federal courthouse after pleading guilty to conspiracy and tax evasion charges related to her Healthy Holly books. At left is longtime friend Paul Coates. (Jerry Jackson/Baltimore Sun)

Welcome to Perspectives in Sentencing and today’s question: What should U. S. District Judge Deborah K. Chasanow do about former Baltimore Mayor Catherine Pugh when she comes up for sentencing on Feb. 27?

Prosecutors have had their say. Pugh’s lawyer and friends have had their say. I think it’s time a tax-paying citizen of Baltimore had a say. So I called upon myself, and we’ll hear from me in just a minute.


First, a recap:

Federal prosecutors declared last week that Pugh should spend 57 months in prison for her audacious scheme to fraudulently reap hundreds of thousands of dollars through sales of her lame “Healthy Holly” books. Pugh’s lawyer, on the other hand, thinks the disgraced, 69-year-old mayor should only spend a year and a day in prison. Some friends think she should be sentenced to community service, with no incarceration.


What’s right?

Let’s compare Pugh’s possible punishment to what happened in two previous Maryland corruption cases — that of John Leopold and that of Jack Johnson.

I picked Leopold and Johnson because they were both county executives — the “mayors,” so to speak, of Anne Arundel County and Prince George’s County, respectively — and they both broke laws within the last decade, though Johnson’s misdeeds were far worse than anything Leopold did.

Leopold, a Republican, was convicted in January 2013 of ordering his taxpayer-funded police security detail to run errands for his 2010 re-election campaign. His misconduct included directing county employees to collect campaign contribution checks and drain a urinary catheter bag.

That last bit was truly weird. Leopold had had back surgery and, for several months, had to use a catheter. “Leopold required [executive protection officers] to empty his urinary catheter bag as needed,” the indictment said. “When in the county executive’s office, Leopold required the appointments coordinator to empty his catheter bag as needed.” (Leopold denied this.)

Judge Dennis M. Sweeney ordered him to serve 30 days in the county jail, another 30 under house arrest. Calling Leopold’s conduct "outrageous,” Sweeney put him on probation for five years and ordered him to perform 400 hours of community service and pay a $100,000 fine.

Leopold was 70 at the time.

Johnson went into federal prison when he was 62 and didn’t come out until he was 68, and even then he had to do more time in a Baltimore halfway house.

Johnson, a Democrat, had been taking bribes for years, and federal prosecutors estimated his take at about $1 million, according to The Washington Post. He pleaded guilty in 2011 to evidence tampering and destruction of evidence in an elaborate corruption scheme involving contractors and developers.

In addition to an 87-month prison sentence, a federal judge fined Johnson $100,000 and ordered him to forfeit $78,000. Johnson spent more than five years in prison — hard time for a political crook.

So there you have the two extremes in recent Maryland corruption cases involving the top executives of two large jurisdictions. (Had I included former Baltimore Mayor Sheila Dixon in this comparison, her offenses and punishment would have been at the low end with Leopold.)

Back to Pugh.


She won the Democratic primary in 2016 and was elected mayor. In her third year in office, she resigned after the Healthy Holly scam was exposed, bringing another scandal to City Hall and further embarrassment to the city.

In November, Pugh pleaded guilty to conspiracy and tax evasion. The book-selling and re-selling scheme was no momentary lapse in judgement by an otherwise honest public servant. It was elaborate and ongoing. Prosecutors say it lasted seven years, even as Pugh, a state senator, sought to become mayor and asked for the trust of voters.

Let’s not forget: This scandal erupted while Baltimore was in the midst of the fifth consecutive year of 300-plus homicides, a tragic and debilitating rate of violence that is continuing in 2020. What a dreary mess.

So, for myself, a Baltimorean, when I hear calls for leniency, I ask: Why?

Because Pugh’s reputation is in tatters? There’s only one person responsible for that.

Because we should be empathetic and embrace redemption for the offender? OK, I think most of us believe in that to some degree. But doesn’t punishment come before redemption? Doesn’t punishment have value? We certainly think it’s important for the guy who robs a convenience store or the woman who embezzles money from an employer. Why not for the politician who uses her position for personal financial gain?

In case you hadn’t noticed, we have a real corruption problem in this state and in this country at the highest levels of government. We have a president who sneers at the law. But, in most courthouses across the land, the law is still paramount.

If the sentence in a high-profile case like Pugh’s does not discourage others in public life from committing corrupt acts, what would?

Back to my Leopold-Johnson scale: Pugh’s crimes were not as serious as Johnson’s nor as low-rent as Leopold’s. So her punishment should not be as severe as Johnson’s (more than five years served) nor as soft as Leopold’s (30 days in jail, 30 days house arrest). Her sentence should be between the two, and closer to what her lawyer asks than what the prosecutors seek.

But then I add the harm done by this scandal to Baltimoreans who trusted and voted for Pugh — people sick of failure, people who remain desperate to see this troubled city on the right track again — and the scale tips further against her.

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