BALTIMORE — The ex-mayor of Baltimore, a city where law enforcement at all levels has long battled corruption and violent crime, is set to appear Thursday in federal court on fraud and tax evasion charges involving her self-published children’s books.
Catherine Pugh, a Democrat, is scheduled to surrender to U.S. Marshals before her initial appearance on charges in an 11-count indictment that stem from her “Healthy Holly” children’s books — whose sales netted her hundreds of thousands of dollars. The appearance comes against the backdrop of an ongoing fight by federal, state and local authorities to root out corruption and crime that have taken an exhausting toll on Maryland’s largest city.
“We need this to be the final line of a chapter in Baltimore history, too often defined by public corruption and criminal indictments,” said Thiru Vignarajah, a former federal prosecutor and deputy Maryland attorney general who is running for mayor.
Pugh, who was elected in 2016, became Baltimore’s second mayor in less than a decade to step down because of scandal. Former Mayor Sheila Dixon left office in 2010 as part of a plea deal for misappropriating about $500 in gift cards meant for needy families.
If convicted, Pugh faces up to 20 years in prison on each wire fraud count, and five years for each tax evasion count. The federal government also will seek to seize a house owned by Pugh and $770,000 as part of any sentence.
Pugh’s attorney, Steven Silverman, declined to comment, saying he’ll address the allegation in court. Pugh, 69, resigned in May as federal, state, and local authorities probed whether she had arranged bulk book sales to disguise political kickbacks.
Corruption in Baltimore has regularly fed headlines.
Last year, state Sen. Nathaniel Oaks, a Democrat, was sentenced to three and a half years in prison in a bribery case. This year, former Police Commissioner Darryl De Sousa pleaded guilty to three counts of failing to file federal tax returns. Baltimore also is still grappling with a major police scandal: A task force created to get illegal guns off the streets spent years ripping off drug dealers and stealing money from citizens.
Meanwhile, the police department remains under a federal consent decree requiring sweeping reforms. It was authorized in January after the U.S. Justice Department released a scathing report detailing longstanding patterns of racial profiling and excessive force within the city’s police force.
Federal authorities began investigating city police following the April 2015 death of a young black man, Freddie Gray, who was fatally injured while in the custody of officers.
The city has continued to suffer. Pugh’s court appearance comes as Baltimore recently hit 300 homicides for the fifth year in a row.
Baltimore Police Commissioner Michael Harrison, who entered the job in March, has unveiled a plan to lower the city’s chronically high rates of violent crime. He also is seeking to transform a police department that is distrusted by many citizens because of past police misconduct.
State lawmakers have been trying to address the city’s problems as well.
The General Assembly created the Commission to Restore Trust in Policing to examine the Gun Trace Task Force scandal and submit recommendations.
In April, Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan signed emergency legislation to overhaul the University of Maryland Medical System’s board of directors, after Pugh’s shadowy “Healthy Holly” book deals became the public face of a wider self-dealing scandal at the system, where Pugh was a board member for nearly 20 years.
“The people of Baltimore, and all Marylanders, should be able to have confidence in the honesty and character of the people they elect to office,” Hogan, a Republican, said Wednesday. “It is completely unacceptable anytime a public official violates the public trust. That’s why I pledged to put an end to business as usual, clean up the mess, and restore integrity in government.”
In the state capital, changes in leadership are putting Baltimore-area officials into powerful leadership roles that could bring greater focus to addressing the city’s problems.
State Sen. Bill Ferguson, a Baltimore Democrat, has been nominated to be the next Maryland Senate president, succeeding Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller, who has held the post for more than three decades.
“While this is a sad day for Baltimore, the Senate, and all of Maryland, this is a necessary first step to justice and showing that the system is working and nobody is above the law,” Ferguson said of Pugh’s indictment in a statement.
Brian Witte And Regina Garcia Cano, The Associated Press