After a historic, nearly 25-year career representing Florida in Congress, former U.S. Rep. Corrine Brown was found guilty Thursday of taking money from a charity that was purported to be giving scholarships to poor students.
The verdict came after prosecutors outlined a pattern of fraud by Brown, 70, and her top aide that included using hundreds of thousands of dollars from the One Door for Education Foundation for lavish parties, trips and shopping excursions. She was convicted of 18 of the 22 charges against her, including lying on her taxes and on her congressional financial-disclosure forms.
Brown watched the judge read each verdict in a silent courtroom with no visible reaction. She later left the courthouse holding onto the arm of a companion, surrounded by dozens of reporters. A few supporters shouted, “We love you, Corrine!” and “Keep the faith!” as she silently made her way to a waiting car.
“Former Congresswoman Corrine Brown violated the public trust, the honor of her position, and the integrity of the American system of government when she abused one of the most powerful positions in the nation for her own personal gain,” Acting Assistant Attorney General Kenneth Blanco said in a statement issued after the ruling.
Brown’s attorney, James Smith, told reporters outside the Jacksonville courtroom that Brown would ask for a new trial, though Smith declined to say on what grounds.
“She’s strong and fighting for her innocence,” Smith said outside the courthouse. “And she will continue to do that.”
Brown was one of the first three African-Americans elected to Congress from Florida since Reconstruction when she was elected in 1992.
Her district, designed to increase African-American representation in Congress, stretched from her hometown of Jacksonville to areas of western Orlando and Orange County, including Eatonville and the Pine Hills neighborhood.
Brown helped steer millions of dollars in federal money and projects to her district, putting in $377 million worth of earmark requests in 2010 and — when the practice of putting dollar figures on requests ended the next year — later ranking second in the state in the total number of requests for pet projects.
She also served alongside former Republican U.S. Rep. John Mica as the top Democrat on the congressional railroads subcommittee, helping bring transportation funds to the area.
Brown served in Congress for 24 years until a court-ordered redistricting in 2016 dramatically shifted her district from Orlando to Tallahassee. Despite her lawsuits, and her statements comparing the move to “slavery” by diluting African-American voting power, the redistricting stood, and she lost to state Sen. Al Lawson of Tallahassee in the Democratic primary.
By then, she had already been indicted on corruption charges following an ethics investigation in the House of Representatives.
Since her indictment last summer, she had been publicly defiant of the government’s charges, saying in a statement she was among black elected officials who have been “persecuted.” She had pleaded not guilty to all of the charges, but lost re-election last fall after her indictment.
Key to the government’s conviction was the testimony of Brown’s former chief of staff, Elias “Ronnie” Simmons, and the charity’s president, Carla Wiley. Both pleaded guilty after their federal indictments for misusing the charity’s funds and testified against Brown.
Federal prosecutors said Brown and her associates used One Door to bring in more than $800,000 between 2012 and 2016, including a high-profile golf tournament at TPC Sawgrass. Brown’s indictment said the Virginia-based One Door only gave out one scholarship for $1,200 to an unidentified person in Florida.
Simmons said Brown ordered him to take cash and checks from One Door’s account. On dozens of occasions, Simmons said he was told to take out of One Door’s account the maximum $800 from an ATM near his house and deposit hundreds of it in Brown’s personal account. Sometimes he kept some for himself.
Brown testified in her own defense, saying she was left in the dark about the goings-on with One Door’s money, and blamed the theft on Simmons.
Brown said she left those details to Simmons and other hired staffers, and said she should have paid more attention to her personal and professional finances.
U.S. District Judge Timothy J. Corrigan did not set a date for Brown’s sentencing. She faces up to 20 years for each fraud or conspiracy conviction.
Source: Orlando Sentinel