For a moment during the unrest of 2015, state Sen. Catherine Pugh looked like the leader Baltimore needed.
After night fell on the corner of Pennsylvania and North avenues ― where angry protesters defied a citywide curfew and threw water bottles at police ― Pugh spoke into a bullhorn and urged calm. Night after night, she and Democratic U.S. Rep. Elijah Cummings joined arms, kept the peace and led distraught West Baltimore residents away from the site where a CVS famously burned days earlier.
She sang “This Little Light of Mine" and proclaimed: "We are a great city!”
After the death of Freddie Gray, during one of Baltimore’s most trying times, many saw leadership in Pugh, and, a year later, voters elected her the city’s 50th mayor.
But what started off as a promising mayoralty ended in ignominy last year when the Democrat resigned from office amid a corruption scandal involving her sale of her “Healthy Holly” children’s books to entities that did business with state and city governments. On Thursday, Pugh will be sentenced in federal court in Baltimore after pleading guilty to conspiracy and tax evasion.
Pugh’s attorneys submitted a 13-minute video to the court Wednesday in which Pugh apologized in her most extensive remarks on the scandal in nearly a year.
“When I think about me and my capacity and my capabilities, and all of the things I’ve been able to do, I said, ‘How did you end up here? How do you mess this up?’” Pugh says in the video. “I messed up. I really messed up. I am so sorry."
She faces a maximum penalty of 30 years in prison. Arguing Pugh deliberately engaged in an “illegal scheme,” prosecutors are seeking a nearly five-year term of incarceration, while Pugh’s defense team is asking U.S. District Judge Deborah K. Chasanow for a prison sentence of one year and one day.
Given that Pugh is nearly 70 years old and a first-time offender, the acknowledgement from Pugh’s defense lawyers that she should serve some prison time surprised many courtroom observers. But Andrew I. Alperstein, a defense attorney and former Baltimore County prosecutor, said he believes Pugh’s defense team was being “realistic.”
“When you have a mayor of a major American city involved in a corruption scheme, it would be difficult for a judge not to impose some punishment,” Alperstein said. “It would send the wrong message to other politicians and to the public that there’s no accountability."
As they head into sentencing, Pugh’s defense team of Steven D. Silverman, Andrew C. White and Abigail E. Ticse, has tried to emphasize her positive qualities ― and the toll the case has taken on her.
“Ms. Pugh is paying a tremendously heavy price for her crimes,” her lawyers wrote in a recent sentencing memo. “Her actions have caused significant pain, embarrassment, and shame for her and her family ... she is now too ashamed to spend any time in the community that she loves.”
White, a former federal prosecutor, said Pugh plans to address the court Thursday.
He said the video was submitted in an attempt to convey her passion for the city.
“Catherine has done so much in her life ... that frankly can’t be adequately captured on paper," White said.
Pugh’s political fall began in March when The Baltimore Sun revealed she had entered into a no-bid deal with the University of Maryland Medical System, where Pugh sat on the board of directors, to buy 100,000 copies of her sloppily self-published books for $500,000. She later resigned from the board and as mayor amid multiple investigations into her finances and the book sales. In total, she netted more than $850,000, prosecutors say.
At the same time, she failed to print thousands of copies, double-sold thousands more and took many others to use for self-promotion, according to prosecutors.
Pugh’s defense team is arguing her long record of public service should make up for at least some of her misdeeds.
Pugh got her start in government in 1975 when she joined the administration of Democratic Mayor William Donald Schaefer as the director of the Citizen’s Involvement Program. She later ran for public office and won seats on the Baltimore City Council and in the House of Delegates and state Senate before becoming mayor.
Along the way, she racked up a number of achievements, including helping to open the Baltimore Design School and establishing the Baltimore Marathon. As mayor, she kept a busy schedule and won praise for removing Confederate-era monuments and creating a new Neighborhood Impact Investment Fund, among other initiatives.
Bishop Donte L. Hickman of East Baltimore’s Southern Baptist Church wrote in a letter of support for Pugh at her sentencing that she played a key role in helping the city rebound after the unrest that gripped Baltimore in 2015 after Gray’s death from injuries sustained in police custody.
“She walked with us through the communities quelling violence,” he wrote.
Kwame Rose, who was a teenage protester when he met Pugh on the streets during the unrest, wrote to the judge that Pugh took him under her wing and she encouraged him to help others, including the squeegee kids who wash car windows on Baltimore’s streets.
“The person that has been described in the media and in charging documents is not the gentle and kindhearted woman who I consider my mentor, confidant, hero and most importantly, my friend," Rose wrote.
At the Maryland State House this week ― where lawmakers passed sweeping reform legislation last session involving the medical system board and loudly condemned the scandal ― several prominent legislators expressed sympathy for Pugh.
Senate President Emeritus Thomas V. Mike Miller said he hopes the judge will be “as lenient as possible under the circumstances.”
“Catherine continues to be a friend,” the Democrat said. “I wish her the very best. My heart is broken.”
State Sen. Jill P. Carter, a Baltimore Democrat whose sponsored reform legislation that helped spark The Sun’s investigation into Pugh’s self-dealing, said she doesn’t see a public benefit in sending a nonviolent offender like Pugh to prison.
“She’s lost her respect and standing in the community. Thus, I don’t think there is any public utility in incarcerating her,” Carter said. “Rather than 57 months of incarceration, 57 months of community service would be a better option.”
While Pugh can count some accomplishments as mayor, she struggled to get a handle on the biggest issue for voters: crime. During every year of her term, Baltimore suffered from more than 300 homicides.
And while Pugh had a reputation for working long hours as mayor, prosecutors say some of that time was spent running her side business of selling her children’s books. Pugh and her aides worked on the “Healthy Holly” business at her state legislative office and City Hall, making phone calls and sending emails about the sale and delivery of books, prosecutors allege.
“In addition to the foregoing misappropriation of government resources, the diversion of Pugh’s time and energy as a state senator and mayor was the biggest misuse of taxpayer’s money,” prosecutors wrote. “In effect, Pugh’s legislative and mayoral offices in Annapolis and Baltimore served as Healthy Holly’s primary place of business."
As The Sun began reporting on the book sales, Pugh began publicly telling lies, including how much profit she was earning from the books and who she was selling them to, prosecutors say.
After the scandal broke in March, Democratic City Councilman Brandon Scott led the charge to pressure Pugh to resign, circulating a letter among council members that they all signed, except for then-Council President Bernard C. “Jack" Young. Young, also a Democrat, became mayor with Pugh’s resignation and Scott rose to lead the council.
“It’s been a painful, embarrassing ordeal for the city to go through another mayor who was removed from office for unethical behavior,” Scott said this week.
Democratic Mayor Sheila Dixon resigned in 2010 as part of a plea agreement to a perjury charge.
The Rev. Alvin C. Hathaway Sr. of Union Baptist Church, wrote a letter to the judge on Pugh’s behalf, saying he hopes people remember Pugh’s positive qualities, as well as her flaws.
“Mayor Catherine Pugh and her political career were woven into the fabric of our city," Hathaway said. “This case has had a tremendous impact of Baltimore. It’s a story of one losing their way. The sad thing about this is people remember the bad and forget the good.”
Baltimore Sun reporters Justin Fenton and Kevin Rector contributed to this article.