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Jurors decide former Jacksonville congresswoman looted scholarship charity
♦By Rich Shumate, Chickenfriedpolitics.com editor
JACKSONVILLE, Florida (CFP) — Corrine Brown, an icon in North Florida’s African-American community who served 24 years in Congress, is likely headed to prison after being convicted of looting a fraudulent scholarship charity to pay personal expenses.
Brown was found guilty May 11 on 18 of the 22 charges against her, including conspiracy, wire and mail fraud and filing false tax returns. No sentencing date has been set, but, given the number and magnitude of the charges, the 70-year-old former Democratic congresswoman could potentially spend much of the rest of her life behind bars.
Brown made no comment as she left the federal courthouse in downtown Jacksonville, the funding for which, as she often noted, she was instrumental in pushing through Congress.
In a statement released later by her lawyer, Brown continued to maintain her innocence and vowed to fight on.
“This fight is not over, and as I’m sure you know, I will continue to fight to clear my name and restore my reputation,” she said.
In a statement, Kenneth Blanco, the acting assistant attorney general, said Brown had “violated the public trust, the honor of her position and the integrity of the American system of government.”
“She shamefully deprived needy children of hundreds of thousands of dollars that could have helped with their education and improved their opportunities for advancement, and she lied to the IRS and the American public about secret cash deposits into her personal bank accounts,” Blanco said.
Prosecutors said Brown and her associates operated a fraudulent private charity that purported to provide scholarships for needy students but instead diverted the money to their personal accounts to pay for luxuries and other expenses. Brown used her political connections to raise money for the charity, which took in more than $800,000 put paid out just $1,200 in scholarships, according to prosecutors.
Brown’s longtime former chief of staff, Ronnie Simmons, and the president of the charity, Carla Wiley, have both pleaded guilty to charges related to the scheme, and Simmons became the star witness against Brown.
Brown took the stand in her own defense, insisting that she did not know that Evans was diverting money from the charity.
The conviction marks a tragic fall for Brown, who in 1992 became part of the first group of African-Americans in Florida’s U.S. House delegation since Reconstruction.
With a political operation built on a flair for publicity and attention to constituent service — her campaign slogan was, “Corrine Delivers” — she was never seriously challenged, despite court-ordered changes in her district and efforts by Republicans to unseat her.
However, in 2015, the Florida Supreme Court dismembered her 5th District, ruling that it was gerrymandered based on racial considerations in violation of state law. Instead of taking in African-American communities in Jacksonville and snaking down the St. Johns River valley to Orlando, the new district heads straight west to Tallahassee, giving Brown a wide swath of unfamiliar territory to defend.
The new lines, coupled with her indictment on fraud charges, led to her primary loss to U.S. Rep. Al Lawson of Tallahassee, ending her 34-year political career.
Her departure opens up a prime opportunity for Democrats to pick up a GOP-held seat
♦By Rich Shumate, Chickenfriedpolitics.com editor
MIAMI (CFP) — U.S. Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, the dean of Florida’s House delegation, will not seek re-election in 2018 to her 27th District seat in Miami-Dade County, drawing down the curtain on three decades of service that have made her an icon in the state’s politically powerful Cuban-American community.
The decision means Republicans will now have to defend a seat from a district which Donald Trump lost by 20 points in 2016 but which had continued to return Ros-Lehtinen to office term after term.
“It’s a great job. But there comes a time when you say, you know, even though this is a wonderful life, and even though I’m doing what I love to do, there’s so many other wonderful things,” she said at a May 1 news conference announcing her retirement.
Ros-Lehtinen, a moderate Republican who has found herself at odds with Trump and other members of her own party, also insisted her departure is unrelated to the current political climate in Washington.
“I know it would be a great narrative to say people aren’t civil with each other and that there’s just a lot of infighting,” she said. “But I’ve been there so many years, I don’t recall a time when there hasn’t been infighting.”
“I’m not frustrated by that.”
Ros-Lehtinen, 64, who was born in Cuba and moved to Miami with her parents at the age of 7, won a House seat in a 1989 special election to fill the vacancy created by the death of Claude Pepper, who himself was a political icon in Miami. She became the first Cuban-American ever elected to Congress and the first Republican woman elected to Congress from Florida.
She has faced little opposition since that first election. However, as the Cuban-American community in Miami has become less monolithically Republican in the last 20 years and district lines have been been altered, the GOP has held on to the district largely because of Ros-Lehtinen’s popularity.
Still, in 2016, she won by just 10 points, as Hillary Clinton was pasting Trump in her district. Democrats were expected to try to contest the seat in 2018, although Ros-Lehtinen expressed confidence that she would have won if she had she run again.
Ros-Lehtinen has left signficant daylight between herself and Trump, refusing to endorse him and opposing both his plans to repeal and replace Obamacare and build a wall along the U.S.-Mexico border. As the mother of a transgender son, she has also been a champion for LGBT equality in Congress.
The 27th is one of just six Southern House seats held by Republicans that Clinton carried, and her margin there was the largest win in any GOP-held district in the country. Ros-Lehtinen’s departure means Democrats will have an opportunity to pick up the seat.
The race to replace Ros-Lehtinen will be a wide open affair, likely drawing a number of Cuban-American politicians from both parties into the mix. Among the Republicans being mentioned is Lieutenant Governor Carlos López-Cantera, who has run statewide and is closely allied with the state’s two top Republicans, Governor Rick Scott, and U.S. Senator Marco Rubio.
Several state legislators are also eyeing the race, which may mean that the field won’t begin to fill out until the legislature adjourns later in May.
Wasserman Schultz beats back Bernie-allied rival; Corrine Brown out
♦By Rich Shumate, Chickenfriedpolitics.com editor
GAINESVILLE, Florida (CFP) — U.S. Senator Marco Rubio handily won renomination in Florida’s Republican primary and will face Democratic U.S. Rep. Patrick Murphy in a race that will help determine which party controls the Senate.
Rubio took 72 percent in the August 30 vote, easily defeating businessman Carlos Beruff, who garnered just 18 percent. On the Democratic side, Murphy was the clear winner, taking 60 percent of the vote, compared to just 18 percent for his main challenger, U.S. Rep. Alan Grayson.
The bad news for Grayson continued, as his wife’s attempt to keep his 9th District U.S. House seat in the family sputtered in the Democratic primary.
Meanwhile, in South Florida’s 23rd District, Democratic U.S. Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz beat back a challenge from Tim Canova, turning aside an effort by angry Bernie Sanders supporters to force her from Congress over accusations that she, as chair of the Democratic National Committee, showed favoritism to Hillary Clinton in the presidential race.
Wasserman Schultz took 57 percent to 43 percent for Canova, who spent more than $3 million trying to unseat the veteran congresswoman.
However, another veteran Democrat was not as fortunate. U.S. Rep. Corrine Brown, who was indicted on corruption charges in July, was defeated in the 5th District primary by Al Lawson, a former state legislator from Tallahassee, in what was likely the last chapter in a 34-year-long political career.
Lawson won 48 percent to 40 percent for Brown.
A redraw of state’s congressional map, ordered by the Florida Supreme Court, substantially altered Brown’s district, forcing her to run in a swath of new territory outside of her Jacksonville base. Federal prosecutors have also accused Brown of conspiring with her chief of staff to convert a scholarship fund into a private slush fund used to pay for her political promotion and personal expenses. She has denied the charges.
Rubio initially decided to give up his Senate seat to pursue the Republican presidential nomination. But after his White House aspirations fizzled, he reversed course, prompting the departure of three of the four major candidates then in the race, all but Beruff.
Speaking to supporters in Kissimmee, the senator dismissed Murphy as an “old-fashioned liberal” handpicked for the Senate by Democratic leaders and a dilettante whose wealth family has given him “everything he’s every wanted.”
“If Patrick Murphy wants to be a U.S. Senator, he’s going to have to earn it by beating the son of a bartender and a maid who came to this country in search of a better life,” he said, employing details from his own biography that were a staple of his run for president.
But speaking to his supporters in Palm Beach County, Murphy criticized Rubio for his poor attendance in the Senate while he was running for president.
“Marco Rubio is the worst of Washington because he puts himself first every time,” Murphy said. “He gave up on his job. He gave up on Florida.”
Murphy also pounced on Rubio’s statement on CNN a day before the primary that he would not commit to serving his full Senate term, saying “no one can make that commitment because you don’t know what the future’s going hold in your life personally or politically.”
Murphy retorted: “Guess what, senator. I’ve got two words for you. I can.”
In his battle against Grayson, Murphy — who was a registered Republican until 2012, when he switched parties to run for Congress — had the backing of virtually all of the Democratic establishment, including the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee.
Party leaders were fearful that a victory by the outspoken Grayson — who regularly subjects reporters to profanity-laden tirades and once had to apologize after calling a female lobbyist “a K Street whore” — would spell disaster in November.
During the primary campaign, Grayson also faced domestic abuse allegations made by his ex-wife. He denied ever hitting her, but the story prompted two liberal groups — Democracy for America and the Progressive Change Campaign Committee — to reverse their endorsements.
In the end, Grayson not only lost to Murphy by more than 40 points but also barely edged out a lesser known candidate, political newcomer Pam Keith, for second place. Keith had snagged a surprise endorsement from one of Florida’s largest newspapers, The Miami Herald.
In addition to helping torpedo Brown in the 5th District, the new map made the 2nd District, which takes in the middle of the Florida Panhandle, more Republican, prompting Democratic U.S. Rep. Gwen Graham to retire.
After a nasty campaign with substantial spending by outside groups, Republicans chose Neal Dunn, a Panama City urologist, over Mary Thomas, a state government lawyer from Tallahassee. Dunn took 41 percent to 39 percent for Thomas, who was trying to become the first Indian-American woman ever elected to Congress.
After Grayson gave up his 9th District to run for the Senate, both his wife, Dena Grayson, and one of his top aides, Susannah Randolph, launched campaigns to succeed him. But State Senator Darren Soto beat them both in the Democratic primary, which is tantamount to election in the heavily Democratic Orlando-based district.
Grayson took 36 percent of the vote, compared to 18 percent each for Randolph and Dina Grayson.
In the 18th District, which Murphy gave up to run for the Senate, Democrats selected Randy Perkins, a multimillionaire businessman from Delray Beach, while Republicans went with Brian Mast, an Army veteran who lost both his legs while serving as a bomb disposal specialist in Afghanistan.
The 18th District, which takes in parts of Palm Beach County and the Treasure Coast, is likely to be a genuine toss-up in November.
The 26th District, which takes in the Florida Keys and southwest Miami-Dade County, will feature a rematch between Republican U.S. Rep. Carlos Curbelo and the man he beat in 2014, former Democratic U.S. Rep. Joe Garcia.
While Curbelo was unopposed in the GOP primary, Garcia eaked out an 800-vote win over Annette Taddeo in the Democratic primary.
Jolly’s decision removes another obstacle from possible re-election run by Marco Rubio
♦By Rich Shumate, Chickenfriedpolitics.com editor
CLEARWATER, Florida (CFP) — Republican U.S. Rep. David Jolly is dropping his bid for Florida’s U.S. Senate seat and will instead run for re-election to his 13th District House seat, setting up a likely general election battle with former Florida Governor Charlie Crist.
“I’ve got unfinished business,” Jolly said at a June 17 news conference at the St.Petersburg-Clearwater airport where he announced the switch. “Today, I’m asking my community simply for the opportunity to keep doing my job.”
Jolly, 43, was elected in a special election in 2014 and easily won a full term that fall to the seat, anchored in Pinellas County in the Tampa Bay area.
However, earlier this year, the Florida Supreme Court ordered that the state’s congressional map be redrawn, and the new map put a part of St. Petersburg with a large minority population into the 13th, turning what had been a swing district into one that favored Democrats.
Faced with the new map, Jolly decided to jump into the Senate race instead. But he failed to gain much traction in a crowded GOP field, a situation made much worse when Republican leaders in Washington began pressuring U.S. Senator Marco Rubio to seek re-election, which made it difficult for the other candidates to raise money.
Meanwhile, Republican leaders in Pinellas County, who struggled to find a strong candidate to challenge Crist, had urged Jolly to switch races and seek re-election.
Crist, 59, was elected governor as a Republican in 2006, and, in 2010, decided to run for the Senate rather than seek re-election. However, when it became clear he would lose to Rubio in the primary, he left the GOP and became an independent to continue his Senate quest.
After losing to Rubio in the general election, Crist became a Democrat in 2012 and ran for governor in 2014, losing to Republican Governor Rick Scott. After that defeat, Crist announced he was leaving politics but changed his mind and launched a bid for Congress after the map was redrawn.
Jolly’s decision to switch races clears another obstacle for a possible re-election run by Rubio. Another Republican candidate in the Senate race, Lieutenant Governor Carlos López-Cantera has indicated that he, too, will drop out if Rubio decides to run.
Tim Canova’s campaign raises $1 million in four months
♦By Rich Shumate, Chickenfriedpolitics.com
HOLLYWOOD, Florida (CFP) — U.S. Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz may be in for the fight of her political career against a Democratic primary challenger who is raising a small mountain of cash to use against her.
Tim Canova, a law professor from Hollywood who criticizes Wasserman Schultz for being insufficiently liberal, has broken the $1 million mark in campaign fundraising, his campaign has announced.
He described his campaign as a “grassroots movement that will restore a voice in our democracy to everyday people and demand accountability from our leaders.”
If that sounds a lot like Bernie Sanders, it is by design. Canova has tied himself firmly to the Vermont senator’s coattails in his effort to oust Wasserman Schultz, who is also chair of the Democratic National Committee.
Sanders partisans have been critical of Wasserman Schultz and the DNC, complaining they are showing partiality to Hillary Clinton in the Democratic presidential race. Now, that anger has spilled over into the primary in Florida’s 23rd District, which takes in southern Broward County and Miami Beach.
While Canova has raised enough money to be competitive, he still trails Wasserman Schultz in the money chase. She has raised $1.77 million as of March 15, the last time candidates reported fundraising numbers to the Federal Election Commission.
In fact, Wasserman Schultz has already spent more money on her campaign–$1.3 million–than Canova has raised for the August 30 primary.
And in the presidential primary back in March, Clinton pummeled Sanders by more than 30 points in Broward County, which does not bode well for Canova’s chances in a similar proxy fight with Wassserman Schultz.
Still, the primary challenge is proving something of a headache for the DNC chair, with South Florida media noting an uptick in her campaigning for what had been considered an unassailable seat. This is the first time in her 12-year congressional career that she has faced primary competition.
Canova has also been criticizing Wasserman Schultz for not yet accepting his offer to debate.
However, in addition to her fundraising advantage, Wasserman Schultz also has another big gun in her arsenal–a highly touted endorsement from President Barack Obama.