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Former Florida U.S. Rep. Corrine Brown gets 5 years in prison for corruption

Sentence brings ignoble end to Brown’s 34-year political odyssey

♦By Rich Shumate, editor

JACKSONVILLE (CFP) — Former U.S. Rep. Corrine Brown of Florida was sentenced to five years in prison on tax and fraud charges related to a scheme to loot $800,000 from a bogus scholarship charity and spend it on personal expenses.

Former U.S. Rep. Corrine Brown. D-Florida

Brown, 71, a Democrat who represented metro Jacksonville in Congress for 24 years, was sentenced December 4 by U.S. District Judge Timothy Corrigan, who called her behavior “brazen” and “born out of entitlement and greed,” according to coverage of the court proceedings by the Florida Times-Union.

Brown, who was ordered to surrender in January to begin serving her sentence, left the courthouse in downtown Jacksonville without comment. Speaking to reporters afterward, her attorney, James Smith, said she would appeal.

“The congresswoman wants to let her supporters know that she’s still strong and resolute, and she appreciates their prayers and their support,” Smith said. “She asks that they not give up hope because she hasn’t given up hope.”

Brown’s former chief of staff, Ronnie Simmons, received a four-year sentence; the head of the charity, Carla Wiley, received 21 months.

Prosecutors alleged that Brown used her contacts and clout as a member of Congress to solicit funds for the charity, which claimed to provide scholarships for economically disadvantaged children. At trial, prosecutors produced evidence that the money was then diverted by Brown, Simmons and Wiley for their own personal use.

Brown took the stand to blame the scheme on Simmons and insist she did not know what he had been doing. But in May, she was convicted on 18 of the 22 counts against her, including including conspiracy, wire and mail fraud and filing false tax returns.

When she was elected on Congress in 1992 after a decade in the Florida legislature, Brown became the first African-American to represent Florida in Congress since Reconstruction. Emphasizing her dedication to constituent service with the phrase “Corrine Delivers,” she would win 11 more times and become a political institution in Jacksonville. She even helped secure the funds to build the Bryan Simpson U.S. Courthouse, the building where she was tried, convicted and sentenced.

However, in 2016, facing corruption charges and a new district radically redrawn by the Florida Supreme Court, she lost the Democratic primary to now U.S. Rep. Al Lawson of Tallahassee.


Former U.S. Rep. Corrine Brown found guilty on fraud charges

Jurors decide former Jacksonville congresswoman looted scholarship charity

♦By Rich Shumate, 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.

Former U.S. Rep. Corrine Brown. D-Florida

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.

U.S. Rep. Corrine Brown indicted on fraud charges

Florida Democrat accused of using donations to scholarship fund for personal expenses

♦By Rich Shumate, editor

florida mugJACKSONVILLE (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.

U.S. Rep. Corrine Brown

U.S. Rep. Corrine Brown

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.

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