(BALTIMORE – March 3, 2020) – I take no solace in writing about the downfall of politicians. In the world I inhabit, the surreal becomes sublime. The case of former Baltimore Mayor Catherine Pugh is narcissistic, insidious, and a grab at power that will have your head spinning.
U.S. Attorney Martin Clarke said, Pugh engaged in “election fraud.” Because the Baltimore Mayoral election was so close, a shift of a few thousand votes could have changed the outcome. The federal prosecution argued during the sentencing phase Pugh should face the maximum time (57 months).
The call from Doni Glover of BmoreNews.com came the day after election day in November 2016. “Charles, is it okay to pay people to vote for you?” The simple answer is “no,” but this is murky. A number of candidates have used election law loop holes in “get out the vote” efforts. The guidelines say you can pay workers to canvas neighborhoods handing out fliers and encourage people to vote. According to Glover, there were a number of people outside of Senator Catherine Pugh’s headquarters in West Baltimore who claimed they were given a “chicken box” and promised “pay for a day’s work.” Many were irate and incensed that they got neither. Police were called to defuse the situation.
After the win, Mayor-Elect Pugh said she would pay the workers. A number of people were paid but there was little sourcing as to how the funds were acquired. In hindsight, the signs of malfeasance were there. Few of us knew the extent nor the ways and means the former Maryland Senator had and was willing to go to secure her position as the 50th Mayor of Baltimore.
Elections have a way of giving you a clean slate. A number of political observers saw Pugh’s business background as a plus and a new way of dealing with the myriad of problems confronting Baltimore. Looking back, there were things “Her Honor” did that people will point to as positives.
On the day after the “Freddie Gray Uprising”, she was on the street, trying to quell violence with other civic leaders. She moved quickly after the Charlottesville tragedy to remove Confederate monuments in the city. Her relationship between the city and Annapolis seemed to moving in a different direction.
A number of high-profile staffers in Pugh’s Senate office joined her mayoral staff, including her Chief of Staff, Gary Brown. “Gary Brown was a minion,” said Federal Prosecutor Clark. Clarke was given the task of laying out why Pugh needed to get the maximum sentence.
“Shocking” was how the federal prosecutor described the plot. Prosecutor Clark laid out the intricacies of the plan which began when she became a Senator. Pugh’s appointment to the University of Maryland Medical System (UMMS) Board allowed her to find cash. The former editor/publisher came up with a novel idea; create a children’s book to change kids eating habits. She dubbed the main character, “Healthy Holly.” The initial plan was to give a portion of proceeds to charity. That never happened. Instead, she received a no bid contract from UMMS for $10,000. It would be the first of many contracts from various entities. The book’s title changed and the cash flowed. It would be this additional cash which allowed the Mayor to purchase a second home and fund her mayoral campaign.
According to prosecutors, Gary Brown became the “Bag Man”, cashing checks through “straw donors” and then turning them into hard currency. As a reward, Brown was to be named a Delegate in the seat Pugh once held. When questions were raised and an indictment unsealed, his name was withdrawn. The Mayor defended her chief of staff and paid for his attorney. This was just the beginning.
During a press briefing with the Mayor, a simple of question about her no bid contract with UMMS leads to an investigation of the “Health Holly” books by the Baltimore Sun. The discovery of the books at a school warehouse destined for Baltimore school children showed it was full of errors and would not be given to students. Several entities were also caught up in the ruse including Associated Black Charities.
The selling of books to public entities “was wrong,” said Federal Judge Deborah K. Chasanow as she pondered the appropriate sentence for the former mayor. Judge Chasanow read the glowing letters from Pugh’s supporters and listened to the five individuals who spoke in court. “What I did not hear was an explanation of why?” The judge took great pains to explain her ruling of a three-year sentence and three years of probation. Between the restitution and fines, the former Mayor of Baltimore lost more than money. She lost credibility, dignity, and a sense of purpose.
I watched the former mayor appear broken in court. Outside the courthouse, while addressing a media throng, it was as if she had “dodged a bullet.” Sure, there was a “mea culpa,” but it all seemed orchestrated. To add to the wonder, “I don’t think this is the last chapter of Catherine Pugh,” she said.
It was surreal. The victims in this crime are the untold members of the community who put their faith in a politician who took advantage of their trust. I know some will claim a “pox on all politicians.” I would caution you not to go down this rabbit hole. Don’t let cynicism creep into your collective consciousness. There is light because it is the only way to drive out darkness. Keep believing!