ABOVE PHOTO: Rep. Corrine Brown
By Jason Dearen
JACKSONVILLE, Fla. — Former U.S. Rep. Corrine Brown could spend the rest of her life in prison after being found guilty of taking money from a charity that was purported to be giving scholarships to poor students.
Last Thursday’s 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.
“Corrupt public officials undermine the integrity of our government and violate the public’s trust, and that is why investigating public corruption remains the FBI’s top criminal priority,” FBI Jacksonville Division Special Agent in Charge Charles Spencer said in a statement.
It was the final act in the downfall of Brown, who had represented the Florida district that included Jacksonville since 1993. Brown, a Democrat, was one of the first three African Americans to be elected to Congress from Florida since Reconstruction.
She 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.
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, including the fraud, 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.
Her attorney, James Smith, said he plans to file a motion for a new trial and said Brown respects the American judicial system and the jury’s verdict, even though she disagrees with it.
“She’s strong and fighting for her innocence,” Smith said outside the courthouse. “And she will continue to do that.”
The judge did not set a date for Brown’s sentencing, which could include many years of jail time.