Former Baltimore mayor enters guilty pleas in fraud case

Former Baltimore mayor enters guilty pleas in fraud case
Former Baltimore mayor Catherine Pugh, right, leaves U.S. District Court in Baltimore on Thursday, Nov. 21, 2019. An 11-count federal indictment accuses Pugh of arranging fraudulent sales of her "Healthy Holly" books to schools, libraries and a medical system to enrich herself, promote her political career and fund her run for mayor. (Source: AP Photo/Steve Ruark)

BALTIMORE (AP) — The disgraced former mayor of Baltimore pleaded guilty Thursday to federal conspiracy and tax evasion charges in a case involving sales of her self-published children's books.

Catherine Pugh pleaded guilty in federal court in Baltimore to conspiracy to commit wire fraud, conspiracy to defraud the government and tax evasion. But she pleaded not guilty to wire fraud. The pleas came a day after an 11-count indictment was unsealed.

The case involves sales of her self-published “Healthy Holly” books to non-profits and foundations to promote her political career and fund her run for mayor. Pugh, a Democrat who was elected in 2016, resigned under pressure in May.

Pugh faces a maximum of 35 years in prison. U.S. Attorney Robert Hur said that based on sentencing guidelines, she would probably be sentenced to about five years but a judge would make the final determination. Her sentencing is set for Feb. 24.

In court Thursday, Pugh only spoke to answer questions from the judge. After the hearing, she silently walked out of the courthouse flanked by attorneys and others and left in a waiting SUV.

Hur said the counts Pugh admitted to “demonstrated that she betrayed the trust placed on her.”

A federal grand jury indictment returned on Nov. 14 also charged two Pugh associates, Gary Brown, Jr., and Roslyn Wedington, who have pleaded guilty to conspiracy and tax fraud.

Pugh 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.

The charges against Pugh came as the city has struggled with violent crime and other cases of public corruption, as well as a major police scandal. The city has had more than 300 homicides annually for five consecutive years.

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.

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.

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 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.”

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