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Ex-mayor Catherine Pugh: a public servant and a public menace in Baltimore | COMMENTARY

Former Baltimore mayor Catherine Pugh arrives for a scheduled arraignment on fraud and tax evasion charges related to sales of her "Healthy Holly" books

It’s no surprise that lawyers for Baltimore’s disgraced ex-mayor, Catherine Pugh, argued for leniency on her behalf in a sentencing memorandum filed last week in federal court in connection with her conviction on conspiracy and tax charges related to the Healthy Holly book scam. That’s their job. What’s more remarkable is the fact that they conceded the need for any jail time at all.

“We respectfully request that the Court impose a sentence of one year and one day incarceration, followed by a period of home detention and supervised release,” they wrote in a 46-page document that chronicled most every respectable act Ms. Pugh ever committed, starting with attending church on a regular basis with her family as a child. Such a sentence, they wrote, “is sufficient, but not greater than necessary, to achieve the statutory sentencing objectives.”

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Ms. Pugh has “already paid an extraordinary price for her conduct,” they said. She has lost her career, her public service calling, her reputation and her standing in the community. Further, forfeiture and restitution orders will cause her “to lose her house and everything that she owns.”

Sentencing guidelines suggest a prison term of between 46 and 57 months, and prosecutors have argued for the maximum, claiming it would address Ms. Pugh’s “longstanding pattern of criminal conduct and serves to deter other would-be corrupt politicians from breaching the public’s trust.”

U.S. District Court Judge Deborah K. Chasanow will ultimately make the call at Ms. Pugh’s sentencing, set for Feb. 27th. But the idea that a public servant’s good deeds should be weighed against their misdeeds — and the very public consequences that followed — when determining punishment is worth exploration.

Ms. Pugh — who was a member of the City Council, Maryland House of Delegates and the state Senate before becoming mayor in 2016 — has indeed long served Baltimore residents, and often well. As The Sun’s editorial board said in its mayoral endorsement of her: “Her life has been one of bringing people together around shared goals.”

She helped found the Baltimore Marathon and the Baltimore Design School; obtain a desperately needed city aid package; and bring calm to West Baltimore during the unrest that followed the death of Freddie Gray in police custody. Legislation she’s championed has helped improve prospects for ex-offenders, the working poor and minority entrepreneurs.

We believe that she grew “teary-eyed as she spoke about the ‘squeegee kids’” in the city and that she saw them “as her own children,” as David Wilson, president of Morgan State University, wrote in one of many character letters submitted to the court praising Ms. Pugh.

We also believe she used the city’s children as an excuse to improperly supplement her income. While she may have initially launched her “Healthy Holly” book series to help kids eat better and exercise more, she ultimately turned it into a vehicle to fleece non-profits and foundations that did business with the state and city.

Both things can be true at the same time, and each mitigates the other. Her good works aren’t undone by her scheme to defraud, but they are certainly overshadowed. And while her bad acts are tempered by her years of service, they will be the legacy for which she’s remembered.

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It may be true she got bad publishing advice, as some maintain, or that she didn’t take good advice. She had a reputation for being resistant to criticism. But she committed calculated deception; to attribute her actions to naivete does a disservice to her intelligence and ours.

Her acts were hardly a “momentary lapse of bad judgment,” as Mr. Wilson characterizes them. They lasted seven years and took in nearly $1 million. And they piled on to the list of embarrassments her precious city endures. She chose to take risks that would hurt not only herself if discovered, but all Baltimore residents.

And so, what is the price of her crime?

On Saturday, the same day The Baltimore Sun ran the story about Ms. Pugh’s lawyers seeking leniency on page 1 of the newspaper, a story on page 2 detailed the release from prison of former Baltimore police commissioner Darryl De Sousa. Ms. Pugh had appointed him to the position in 2018, but he stepped down in May of that year — nearly a year to the day before Ms. Pugh did the same — after being charged with failing to file federal tax returns. He was later convicted and sentenced to 10 months in prison.

Surely Ms. Pugh’s crimes were greater than Mr. De Sousa’s. But they’re likely not worth five years in prison starting at age 70, either, given her service history and all that her actions have already cost her.

The right number is probably somewhere in between.

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The best that can be said about whatever it is, is that it will close a chapter on the city’s latest scandal. And perhaps afterward, we can more fully focus our attention on Baltimore’s future, rather than Pugh’s past.

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