Former Baltimore mayor awaits sentence in book deals case

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FILE - In this June 8, 2018, file photo, Baltimore Mayor Catherine Pugh addresses a gathering during the annual meeting of the U.S. Conference of Mayors in Boston. The disgraced former mayor of Baltimore is scheduled to be sentenced during a hearing on Thursday, Feb. 27, 2020. (AP Photo/Charles Krupa, File)

BALTIMORE, Md. – Years before taking the office she'd resign from in disgrace, Catherine Pugh had a vision to see Baltimore “prosper and grow.”

In a 2005 self-published collection of poetry, the woman who would become Baltimore's mayor wrote about her solutions for the city’s challenges and dream of seeing the community unite. Her verse called out elected officials who think “they can play you and even forget ... / A promise they made or a commitment unkept ... / They can disappear at the blink of an eye ... / And all that was said ... considered a lie ..."

Fifteen years later, a federal judge is weighing the contrast described by those poems — commitment to public service and self-interest — to decide how much time Pugh will spend in prison.

The veteran Democratic politician will learn her future Thursday when she is sentenced for leading a scheme that sold her other self-published books to nonprofits and foundations to promote her political career and fund her run for mayor.

Pugh, 69, pleaded guilty in November to federal conspiracy and tax evasion charges in a deal with prosecutors, who have asked the judge to impose a prison term of nearly five years. Attorneys for Pugh, who was elected mayor in 2016, have suggested a sentence of 366 days.

Prosecutors say Pugh, helped by aide Gary Brown Jr., double-sold the illustrated “Healthy Holly” children’s books and failed to deliver them to institutions they were purchased for, including the Baltimore City Public Schools. Pugh used the proceeds to fund straw donations to her mayoral campaign and buy a new house. She resigned under pressure in May.

The University of Maryland Medical System — one of the state’s largest employers — was Pugh’s biggest book customer. The system paid her a total of $500,000 for 100,000 copies that were meant to be distributed to schoolchildren, but about 60,000 of those books were sent to a city warehouse and a Pugh office where thousands were removed to give to other customers. Prosecutors say Pugh never delivered the other 40,000 books the health system purchased for city schools.

Pugh had previously served in the state Senate, where she sat on a committee that funded the medical system. She also sat on the hospital network’s board from 2001 until the scandal erupted in March. The former mayor returned the last $100,000 payment and described the deal as a "regrettable mistake" after the scheme was uncovered.