by Michael Kunzelman
A former aide who helped ex-Baltimore Mayor Catherine Pugh fraudulently sell her self-published children’s books to nonprofits was sentenced Friday to more than two years in federal prison.
Gary Brown Jr. apologized for his actions and expressed regret for bringing shame to his family and friends before U.S. District Judge Deborah Chasanow sentenced him to 27 months.
In February, Chasanow sentenced Pugh, a Democrat, to three years in prison for her role in the scheme to profit from sales of her “Healthy Holly” books.
The judge said the scam’s victims extended beyond the organizations that Pugh and Brown defrauded.
“The victims are all of us who have lost some faith in our institutions,” Chasanow said.
Brown, 38, pleaded guilty in November to conspiracy to commit wire fraud, two counts of conspiracy to defraud the U.S. government and filing a false tax return. The judge ordered him to report to prison by Nov. 2.
Brown abused his position as a public servant through an “eight-year pattern of nonstop criminality,” federal prosecutors said in a court filing last month. They described him as Pugh’s “go-to man, her confidante and partner in crime” as they pitched her books to companies and organizations with ongoing or pending government contracts.
Between 2011 and 2019, Brown worked as Pugh’s legislative aide in the state Senate before becoming deputy director of special events in the mayor’s office. While on the government payroll, he served as Pugh’s “right-hand man from start to finish” on the fraudulent book sales, prosecutors wrote.
Brown and Pugh, 70, raised more than $850,000 from the sale of more than 132,000 books, although fewer than 74,000 copies of the paperbacks were printed, according to prosecutors. They described Pugh as “the face of the company,” luring customers while Brown oversaw operations and received sales commissions.
Chasanow said Brown played an “essential” role in the scheme. “Without him, this doesn’t happen,” added the judge, who also ordered him to pay $14,000 in restitution.
Defense attorney Barry Pollack described Brown as a dedicated public servant who was Pugh’s “minion,” not an equal partner.
“He wanted to serve his community and wanted to serve Mayor Pugh,” Pollack told the judge, seeking a sentence of home detention.
In June, Pugh began serving her sentence at a prison in Aliceville, Alabama. During her sentencing hearing, Pugh apologized through tears and said she accepted full responsibility for her actions.
Brown’s sentencing guidelines called for a prison term ranging from 33 to 41 months. Prosecutors recommended a prison sentence of 33 months, saying it would serve as “an adequate and just punishment” while deterring other government corruption.
Another former Pugh associate, Roslyn Wedington, awaits sentencing for her guilty plea in November to related charges.
Pugh was elected mayor in 2016 and resigned under pressure in May 2019 as authorities investigated her book sales.
Pugh was a member of the board of directors of the University of Maryland Medical System, which paid a total of $500,000 for 100,000 copies of Pugh’s books. They were meant to be distributed to schoolchildren, but about 60,000 of those books were sent to a city warehouse and a Pugh office before going to other customers, and she never delivered the other 40,000 copies to the health system, prosecutors said.
In late 2016, Brown was appointed to fill the state House of Delegates seat vacated by Pugh’s mayoral election. However, before Brown could be sworn into office, Gov. Larry Hogan rescinded the appointment after Brown was indicted by a Baltimore grand jury on charges he violated state campaign finance laws during Pugh’s campaign.
Brown and Pugh used money from the book business account to fraudulently inflate the amount of political contributions made to her mayoral campaign, giving her an unfair advantage over competitors, according to federal prosecutors. They said Brown illegally converted checks from book sales into untraceable cash to fund tens of thousands of dollars in campaign contributions in the names of straw donors.
In 2017, Brown reached a plea deal in the case brought by the Maryland State Prosecutor’s Office without implicating Pugh. Pugh kept him on her staff for two more years, prosecutors said.
Brown also pleaded guilty last year to separate federal charges that he operated a fraudulent tax preparation business and that he abused his position as board chairman of the Maryland Center for Adult Training Inc., which employed Wedington as its executive director. For five years, prosecutors said, Brown helped Wedington evade payroll taxes on her $80,000 annual salary.
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Michael Kunzelman is a reporter with The Associated Press. AP writer Regina Garcia Cano contributed to this report.
About the Headline Photo: In this Feb. 27, 2020, file photo, former Baltimore mayor Catherine Pugh and her attorney Steven Silverman, left, leave a sentencing hearing at U.S. District Court in Baltimore. Gary Brown Jr., a former legislative aide who helped Pugh fraudulently sell her self-published children’s books, has been sentenced to federal prison Friday, Sept. 11, 2020. In February, Pugh was sentenced to three years in prison for her role in the scheme to profit from sales of her “Healthy Holly” books. (AP Photo/Steve Ruark, File)