Jacksonville, FL -
While the focus of now-former Congresswoman Corrine Brown’s federal trial so far has been the fraud and related charges she’s facing, the tax violations facing her took center stage Tuesday.
One of Brown’s tax preparers says she became increasingly uncomfortable as the amount of documentation to support Brown’s alleged charitable giving fell off over the years. A staffer was also found to have some documentation that hadn’t been submitted, but she says everything she gathered and turned in- or didn’t- was at the direction of Brown.
Brown gets her taxes done through Portnoy CPA, and Dawn Wright has worked on those returns for a number of years. Overall, she described Brown’s individual income tax returns as “relatively straightforward”, except for the fact that they were filed in October of the following year- when all of the extensions had been maxed out.
When the returns were taken one year at a time, though, prosecutors started to highlight some questions. Overall, they’re accusing Brown of both under-reporting her income and over-reporting her charitable giving.
Much of the information reflected in the tax returns was compiled by Brown’s Area Director in Jacksonville, Carolyn Chatman, who would communicate directly with Brown. She told the court that any of the information she wrote for charitable giving, including how much was given to charity, she got straight from Brown.
For all of the returns in question, Brown’s only reported sources of income have been her salary from the House of Representatives- which has ranged between about $160,000 and $180,000- and her pension from the state of Florida from her time as a state lawmaker. Prosecutors asked Wright on several occasions whether Brown had reported any income from other various sources, and her answer was consistently no. The government believes Brown should have reported money she was allegedly receiving from a group she promoted as a charity, One Door For Education. The focus of the trial is that she and two others raised hundreds of thousands of dollars in donations for that group, but used the money instead on personal expenses.
FBI Forensic Accountant Kimberly Henderson there were several other entities that gave money which ultimately wound up in Brown’s bank account as well- although testimony showed it wasn’t declared as income. Henderson tracked checks from the Community Rehabilitation Center non-profit, Northwest Support Services Inc for-profit, and Lapool Transportation and Education for-profit, which she believes were converted to cash and deposited with Brown. The CRC’s Executive Director Reginald Gaffney is behind Northwest, and a former CRC official Stanley Twiggs founded Lapool.
With charitable giving, there were questions not only with the paperwork backing some of the claimed donations, but with what Brown was actually trying to deduct.
There have been multiple witnesses testifying on these returns. WOKV has compiled them in to this comprehensive look.
On her 2008 return, Brown claimed about $23,505 in cash or check donations to various churches, Edward Waters College, and the Community Rehabilitation Center. That year, she did not make any “in kind” contributions- or donations of tangible items, like furniture- rather than money.
Included in the documents prosecutors received as a result of a subpoena on Portnoy, though, was a letter from EWC thanking Brown for her “generous gift of conference room furniture and accessories” for the Presidential Conference Room, which was valued at $12,000. The letter indicated the donation was made in 2008, but the letter itself was dated July 2010- which is well after the return itself was filed.
To give context to the date, IRS revenue agent Tracy Lane testified about an audit she did of Brown’s 2008 return, in 2010. She was tasked with looking at specific areas, including charitable contributions, to ensure there was documentation and verification to support the deductions.
Lane says she met with a few people representing Brown- including an attorney and a tax preparer- on July 9, 2010, which was two days after the date on the EWC letter. She acknowledged that the amount on the EWC letter and what Brown claimed did not match, and there was also a discrepancy between whether she contributed cash/check or in kind items. Because the amount Brown claimed is less than what the letter attested to, Lane says she ultimately signed off on the audit, which found the return did not need to change.
She says she took the supporting documents at face value.
Brown’s 2009 return includes a letter from EWC with the same date on it as the letter submitted for 2008, and it appears to say the same thing, but instead the value of the donated property is $8,000. This year’s return did reflect an $8,000 in-kind contribution, in addition to $18,120 in various cash and check donations.
The largest donation was $12,000 to the Community Rehabilitation Center, but emails between the Portnoy team and Brown’s assistant, Carolyn Chatman, show Brown had not provided the paperwork to support that donation by the time they were ready to file the return. On October 13, 2010, a Portnoy staffer emailed that they were filing the return without the CRC donation, and that would mean a lower refund Brown would get back. The file then indicates that on October 14th, Portnoy got a letter from the CRC thanking Brown for her donation. That letter was dated March 30, 2010, and signed by the CRC Executive Director Reginald Gaffney, who is now a Jacksonville City Councilman.
Two key questions in 2010’s return are first, a deduction Brown claimed for her time, and second, a substantial donation that was only declared after Portnoy sent Brown her return- which showed that she would only be getting back $756 dollars.
In the initial return, Brown had claimed $5,221 cash and check donations, and $10,000 in kind. A letter from the CRC dated August 17, 2011 thanks Brown for her contribution of “time”, which is valued at $10,000.
“You have contributed to helping to establish a brighter future for the multitude of people in need of every possible ray of hope,” the letter says.
Wright told Brown that time could not be deducted, though. When they were set to file the return itself, there was a new letter from the CRC which had the same date as the prior letter, but thanked Brown instead for her $10,000 donation of household goods, law equipment, computers, and other like items.
When the government subpoenaed the files of Chatman- who is the staffer that helped Brown compile information for these returns- we’re told they found several versions of this CRC letter, including one that was not signed and one that did not have a donation amount written in. Chatman says she’s unsure how that got in her file.
Another difference from the draft to the final return was a $9,500 cash or check contribution to EWC that wasn’t disclosed on the initial return. The addition of that donation boosted Brown’s anticipated refund from the IRS to $3,416- or $2,660 more than what she was initially sent.
Still a third potential complication with the 2010 return actually came almost two years after the return itself was filed. Brown filled out an amended return because of a few changes in connection to her mortgage rate. The change resulted in Brown owing the government $2,057.
Prosecutors have previously alleged that she paid that bill with money that was funneled from One Door For Education, and there is a check Brown wrote to the IRS that’s been shown a few times through the trial. Chatman, however, says Brown told her to hold the amended return, rather than file it- so it’s unclear at this point whether that was actually submitted.
Brown’s 2011 return claimed another in kind donation to the CRC- $9,000 worth of jewelry, clothing, and other items. That came with $19,720 in cash or check contributions to a variety of churches and a few other organizations, including FAMU, EWC, Urban League, and Bethune Cookman.
Of the cash and check contributions, Wright says they didn’t have documentation to support all of the claims. While they prefer to have paperwork backing all of the claims, she says they were willing to take Brown at her word for the balance, because they didn’t have any reason to believe it wasn’t accurate.
Giving some level of increased confidence is the fact that- for all of these years of returns- Brown authorized electronic filing. To do that, she had to sign a form that included her verifying the accuracy of the return, under the penalty of law.
2011 was another year there was an amended return required because of mortgage rate changes, but Portnoy’s records can not definitively conclude whether Brown actually filed that return. It is the responsibility of Brown, not Portnoy, to file the amended returns.
For 2012’s return, Brown’s donation claims were submitted a slightly different way- the list from the prior year was a foundation on which a few things were crossed out and a few more added by staff, and that was sent to Wright. This is the first time that One Door appears, with Brown saying she donated $12,500.
Henderson, the FBI Forensic Accountant, says her analysis of thousands of pages of financial information connected to Brown and One Door show Brown did not make any donation to the organization at any point.
Wright says she spoke with Brown to confirm the list of donations, which included Brown telling her to bump up the estimated value of an in kind donation to the CRC.
This is also the first return where there was no documentation submitted to back the donation claim to Bethel Baptist. Later testimony showed, however, that there was a receipt available- but the amount didn’t match. It’s the first of a few years where this discrepancy was found.
Chatman’s file for this year showed Bethel Baptist verified a $3700 donation. The amount claimed on Brown’s return was $3980. Chatman says she wrote the amount for the return to reflect whatever Brown told her.
Several entities Brown had not donated to in the prior few years surface on this year’s return, including $35 to the Alzheimer’s Association, and $20 to the University of Florida. Wright says several of the donations again did not have documents submitted backing them up, including a $5,000 contribution to One Door and $6,100 donation to Bethel Baptist.
Chatman’s file shows a receipt for $3,445 for Bethel Baptist.
Of the letters that were submitted, the one from the CRC issued 2/27/14 acknowledged her contribution in 2013, but was signed by a different party than all of the prior CRC letters.
The verification of the accuracy of this year’s tax return and permission to electronically file was not signed in the appropriate space. While prosecutors started to question Wright on whether the signature looked like Brown’s to begin with, that line of questioning was stopped after an objection by the defense.
This is one of only a few occassions prosecutors showed Chatman actively communicating with Brown’s Chief of Staff Ronnie Simmons in an effort to gather some of the information needed to complete the return, specifically asking for some of the new numbers in regard to the amount of charitable giving.
There were no documents to support a $3500 donation to the Clara White Mission, $7200 donation to Bethel Baptist, $6500 donation to the CRC, $7000 donation to One Door, or $2500 donation to New Destiny which were all claimed in the return. As with the last few years, there was a Bethel Baptist receipt in Chatman’s file, showing $4,378.
Prosecutors asked Wright if she was comfortable only getting verbal confirmation on all of these donations, and she was not.
“Because it was so late in the year, and previous years it was late in the year, and we were starting not to get documentation as years progressed,” Wright says.
Brown’s defense attorney, James Smith III, pointed out that Wright generally communicated with Chatman- and on a rare occasion Simmons- when putting together these returns. While Chatman says she got almost all of the information she used in this process from Brown, she said that would occasionally funnel through Simmons, or she would sometimes seek his help.
The defense has continually blamed Simmons for the core issues in this case, saying Brown relied on him to handle her finances and many other matters, and that Simmons betrayed that trust. Smith has been working to put distance between Brown and knowledge of any wrongdoing.
Smith also questioned whether Wright had ever told Brown about her concerns about the decreasing amount of documentation to back up the donations. She says she never told Brown personally, although someone else in her firm might have. Generally, she would instead seek documentation from Chatman.
With the audit which showed some discrepancy in the donation claimed to EWC in amount and type, Smith pointed out that the amount that was claimed by Brown was less than what was reflected in the letter, and therefore she submitted for a smaller deduction than she would conceivably be allowed.
WOKV is inside of the courtroom following all of the latest testimony. Follow our reporter Stephanie Brown on Twitter for updates as new information is available.