When we learned on Thursday that former Baltimore Mayor Catherine Pugh had been charged on a variety of corruption and tax evasion charges, I pondered what sort of defense her legal team planned to put up. After all, the self-dealing transactions uncovered by the Baltimore Sun were such obvious examples of grifting that it should have been a no-brainer for prosecutors to go after her. But Pugh had insisted from the beginning that nothing illegal had gone on and she had paid her taxes.
Well, so much for that. Barely 24 hours later, the news broke that the disgraced former mayor had pleaded guilty to four of the original eleven charges. (NPR)
Former Baltimore Mayor Catherine Pugh pleaded guilty to corruption charges on Thursday, a day after federal prosecutors unsealed an indictment accusing her of using a fraudulent children’s book business to enrich herself and fuel her political career.
Pugh, 69, a Democrat who took office in 2016, acknowledged her guilt to conspiracy to commit wire fraud and conspiracy to defraud the government and two counts of tax evasion…
“She betrayed the trust placed in her by the public,” U.S. Attorney for Maryland Robert Hur said after the court hearing in Baltimore. “We need dedication and professionalism from our leaders, not fraud and corruption.”
The first reports we saw on this story claimed that Pugh had originally decided to plead not guilty to the wire fraud charge, but that apparently changed as the plea deal negotiations proceeded. That may have just been a negotiating tactic on the part of Pugh’s attorneys.
We don’t know all of the details of the deal yet, but Pugh will appear for sentencing on February 27th. These seem to be the most serious charges, so the prosecutors were probably willing to settle for the four guilty pleas and call that a win rather than risking going to trial.
The prosecutors are saying they will recommend that Pugh be sentenced to five years. Given the way these things usually work, the judge may very well decide to go with something lower, perhaps in the range of two to three years. Then, with time off for good behavior, she could be back out on the streets in a year or so.
If that’s the case, are people really going to be satisfied with a sentence in that range? After all, we’re talking about fraud adding up to the better part of a million dollars. Even if this had been something as basic as a bank robbery you’d expect to see a longer sentence than that. But this was far more than just theft. This was the abuse of a high public office and the misappropriation of taxpayer money.
There’s also the campaign finance aspect of the charges to be considered. Prosecutors allege that several of the “Healthy Holly” payments were converted to illegal straw man campaign contributions in the names of others. This was a complete betrayal of the citizens of the city designed to enrich Pugh personally and illegally advance her political ambitions.
Pugh will turn 70 only a week after her sentencing and she has supposedly been battling some health problems, so any significant jail term could wind up being a life sentence for her. But should that really be factored into the judge’s considerations? The former mayor’s departure and indictment means that two of Baltimore’s last three mayors have departed the office on their way to a date with a judge. (The other was Sheila Dixon, who served from 2007 until 2010 when she stepped down after being convicted of embezzlement.) The mayor who preceded Pugh, Stephanie Rawlings-Blake, declined to run for another term after her massive failures in handling the aftermath of the Freddie Gray riots.
So basically, the people placed in charge of Charm City for the last nine years have been characterized by a combination of corruption and incompetence. Something needs to be done to send a firm message to those seeking that office in the future. And, just perhaps, the message might sink in with the voters so they stop electing a parade of characters like these.