Gary Brown Jr. comes off as a criminal mastermind in a 17-page sentencing memo by federal prosecutors – a shrewd underboss who partnered with an unscrupulous mayor to “defraud so many businesses out of so much money.”
“An essential co-conspirator,” federal prosecutors said yesterday, presenting their case for a harsh sentence for his role in Catherine Pugh’s “Healthy Holly” book scheme and other illegal activities.
But those who knew him describe Brown as more of a starstruck loyalist, a boyish follower of an ambitious politician now serving time in federal prison in Alabama.
“He liked to call Catherine ‘my queen.’ He was who she wanted him to be. He couldn’t breathe unless she told him to breathe,” a political insider told The Brew.
His attorney, Mark Pollack, said much the same yesterday, arguing that Brown was motivated less by personal enrichment than by an unswerving devotion to Pugh.
U.S. District Judge Deborah K. Chasanow mostly agreed with the prosecutors’ assessment, calling Brown “a full-fledged criminal” and sentencing him to 27 months in prison (the prosecutors wanted 33 months).
More striking than Brown’s serious prison time is how few legal consequences other Pugh intimates have faced compared to the 38-year-old graduate of Carver Vocational Technical School.
Outside of the former mayor, no other prominent figure in Maryland’s political, business or nonprofit worlds has been charged as a result of the scandals.
(A minor figure, Roslyn Wedington, pleaded guilty to filing false tax returns while executive director of the Maryland Center for Adult Training. She had conspired with Gary Brown to file the false returns on behalf of MCAT, a Park Heights training center founded by Pugh. Judge Chasanow has not yet scheduled her sentencing.)
In addition to exposing Pugh’s book-selling scheme, the federal investigation lifted the lid on questionable campaign-finance practices and poor accountability among some large nonprofits.
It will be a shame if the investigation now closes down.
Here is a rundown of people who have escaped scrutiny for their role in Pugh’s questionable activities:
• James T. Smith Jr. The former Baltimore County Executive arranged, through a slate committee he controlled, a $100,000 illegal loan to Pugh during her 2016 mayoral campaign. For that, the slate committee was slapped with a $3,000 fine by the state prosecutor, while Smith was hired by Pugh as chief of strategic alliances, a newly created City Hall job that paid $175,000 a year.
(By contrast, Brown, who laundered $18,000 in campaign money for Pugh and got caught, was awarded with a $46,000 City Hall job as an assistant events coordinator. Pugh arranged for the law firm of William H. “Billy” Murphy to defend Brown, and a potential one-year jail term was plea-bargained down to supervised probation.)
• Robert A. Chrencik. The longtime CEO and president of UMMS personally authorized $500,000 in payments to Pugh to print her “Healthy Holly” books for the alleged benefit of children in Baltimore City schools. (Pugh and Jim Smith were members of the UMMS board of directors.)
The books cost a fraction of the $5-a-copy price that UMMS paid Pugh. Many of the books were never actually printed and others were “double-sold” to such groups as Associated Black Charities (ABC). After resigning last year, Chrencik refused to cooperate in a UMMS audit of payments to Pugh and other members of the UMMS board.
• Stephen A. Burch. The ex-chairman of UMMS board who served as a member of Pugh’s transition team and was heavily involved in financing her 2016 mayoral campaign.
Burch personally loaned the campaign $50,000 and participated with ex-Baltimore County Senator Francis X. Kelly, pest control mogul Walter Tilley Jr. and other UMMS board members to funnel cash to Pugh’s campaign. (Tilley also kindly ferried Pugh, via private jet, to Las Vegas to attend the 2016 Maryland Party.)
• Diane L. Bell-McKoy. The executive director of Associated Black Charities and co-chair of Pugh’s transition team used her organization as a third-party distributor of Healthy Holly books, collecting a fee in the process.
Organizations that purchased the books included Grant Capital Management, CareFirst, Maryland Automobile Insurance Fund and Ariel Investments. In all, $77,626 in book sales was handed over to Pugh’s Healthy Holly LLC by ABC, while $9,552 was pocketed by the nonprofit. Following media coverage, ABC pledged to donate its funds “to a local charity focused on childhood health issues.”
• J.P. Grant. The Columbia-based leasing financier made two illegal payments to Pugh. The first, for $20,000, went to 2 Chic Boutique, a consignment shop co-owned by Pugh and Baltimore Comptroller Joan M. Pratt.
The check, signed by his wife Judy, was cashed by Pugh and used to fund her campaign shortly before the 2016 mayoral primary (the same period that Smith, Burch and Tilley collectively gave her $200,000 in loans).
In October 2016, Grant wrote a $100,000 check to Healthy Holly LLC. The businessman told The Sun the money was used to buy Healthy Holly books, but federal prosecutors reported that Pugh used most of it to purchase a second house in Baltimore.
The Brew has reported that Grant was behind the extensive renovations of the second house through work done by the Commercial Group, the recipient of multiple city contracts, including a $24 million conduit upgrade approved by Pugh when she was mayor.
Although Grant was cited in Pugh’s federal sentencing memo as the source of $120,000 in improper payments – plus an additional $50,000 funneled to Pugh reportedly to help her print and distribute Healthy Holly books – the U.S. attorney’s office has yet to bring criminal charges against the financier.