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Florida Democrat accused of using donations to scholarship fund for personal expenses
♦By Rich Shumate, Chickenfriedpolitics.com editor
JACKSONVILLE (CFP) — U.S. Rep. Corrine Brown of Florida has been indicted on a slew of federal fraud charges, accused of converting a scholarship fund into a private piggy bank that was used to pay for her political promotion and personal expenses.
Brown, 69, a Jacksonville Democrat serving her 12th term in Congress, was released on bond after a July 8 appearance in U.S. District Court in Jacksonville, where she pleaded not guilty to all of the charges.
“My heart is just really heavy. This has been a really difficult time for me, my family and my constituents,” Brown told reporters as she was leaving the courthouse. “But I’m looking forward to a speedy day in court to vindicate myself.”
Brown’s indictment came just seven weeks before Florida’s primary, in which she is facing a stiff challenge from former State Senator Al Lawson in the 5th District, which was reconfigured earlier this year by the Florida Supreme Court.
The 24-count federal indictment charges Brown with conspiracy to commit mail and wire fraud, multiple counts of mail and wire fraud, concealing material facts on required financial disclosure forms, theft of government property, obstruction of the due administration of the internal revenue laws, and filing false tax returns.
If convicted on all charges, she could face as much as 357 years in prison, although such a lengthy sentence would be unlikely.
Her chief of staff, Ronnie Simmons, was indicted on similar charges. He also pleaded not guilty.
Federal prosecutors allege that starting in 2012, Brown and Simmons began conspiring with Carla Wiley, who operated One Door for Education, a Virginia-based charity which purportedly helped poor college students by giving them scholarships.
According to the indictment, Brown and Simmons used her official position as a congresswoman to solicit money for One Door, which raised more than $800,000.
However, according to prosecutors, only $1,200 of that amount went for scholarships. Much of the rest was converted for Brown’s professional and personal use, including direct deposits of money into her bank accounts, according to the indictment.
Prosecutors also allege that more than $200,000 in One Door money was used to pay for events hosted by Brown or held in her honor, including a golf tournament and use of a luxury box during a Washington Redskins game.
In announcing the indictment, the U.S. attorney for the Middle District of Florida, A. Lee Bentley, said his office “is committed to ferreting out and prosecuting all forms of corruption and fraud, regardless of who the offender is.”
“In our nation, no one is above the law,” he said.
Questions about One Door were first raised in January by the Florida Times-Union newspaper in Jacksonville, which triggered a grand jury investigation into Brown’s conduct.
At the same time, the Florida Supreme Court ordered Brown’s 5th District to be substantially redrawn, over her strenuous objections.
The new district, which begins in Jacksonville and heads due west across the Florida Panhandle to Tallahassee, is still majority black but has a lower black population than Brown’s old district.
After Brown lost a lawsuit challenging the plan in federal court, Lawson, from Tallahassee, announced he would run against her.
Lawson’s reaction to Brown’s indictment was low key. On his Facebook page, he called her legal problems “unfortunate” and went on to say, “I intend to carry the torch of equality, decency and honesty to Congress and to make everyone proud.”
The primary is August 30.