Jacksonville, FL — The 2013 Corrine Brown Invitational Golf Tournament was advertised "to benefit the COMTO Jacksonville Chapter Scholarship Fund and other community non-profits", but the head of COMTO says they have no record of any money coming in from the event.
Testimony Friday in the federal fraud trial of now-former Congresswoman Corrine Brown has focused on events allegedly funded by donations to a "sham" charity, One Door For Education, and whether those events actually did anything for charitable giving.
An FBI Special Agent on the case previously told the court that bank and financial records showed more than $55,000 from One Door was used toward this golf tournament at TPC Sawgrass. The event took place during the same time frame that the Conference of Minority Transportation Officials- or COMTO- was holding an annual conference in Jacksonville, and the President of COMTO at the time did attend the event.
Current COMTO President and CEO Brad Mims testified that their records show One Door made no donation to their scholarship fund, either at the national or local level. When prosecutors asked what a $25,000 donation to the organization directly would have meant, Mims said it breaks down to five or six scholarships.
Brown’s defense, James Smith III, questioned Mims whether he was at that event, and he was not. He added that he could not speak to any networking or future donation opportunities that may have been discussed at the event, only that their records did not reflect any hard giving.
Another event that allegedly tapped One Door funds- about $15,000 worth- is a luxury box at a Jaguars-Redskins game in DC. The head of the Florida Democratic Party, Stephen Bittel, says he paid more than $11,000 for his private plane to take people he believed to be One Door donors to what he thought was a fundraiser in DC. He also says he didn't know Brown herself would be on the plane for the ride up to DC. Prosecutors say there was no fundraising done during the game.
One of the people who was invited on the plane along with his family was Jack Hanania. Hanania says he had refused a requested $10,000-$12,000 donation to Brown’s campaign, but when he heard about One Door’s mission to help youth in education, he agreed to contribute $7,000.
“Corrine knows how to raise money,” he says.
Hanania told the court after he donated, he was invited to the game- including on the plane with Brown- but his understanding was that these were separate. He told prosecutors he believed at the time that his donation to One Door was going to charity, and the event was being covered by other dollars.
An email from Brown's Chief of Staff Ronnie Simmons showed reference to a FedEx label to send the "payment" Hanania was making. That same email inquired who Hanania would be bringing on the plane with him, in reference to the football game. Hanania says he understood the payment to refer to his One Door donation, and not anything connected to the game itself- although it's a distinction that Smith pointed out is far from clear on paper.
Prosecutors have also frequently questioned an annual reception held in Brown's honor in conjunction with- although not affiliated with- the Congressional Black Caucus Foundation's Annual Leadership Conference, which allegedly gets tens of thousands of dollars in One Door money. Smith has worked to show that there are valuable networking and development opportunities at this annual event- even if the focus itself is not on raising scholarship money.
Tasha Cole, a senior official with the CBCF who oversees scholarships and charitable giving, says there was no record of funding from One Door to go either toward CBCF scholarships or tables at their conference dinners.
Marva Brown Johnson- who was with Bright House Networks at the time- says she paid for ALC attendance and tables through One Door, though. She says she was inspired by Brown to attend the conference, and ultimately the conference inspired future charitable interests and giving. Proosecutors have checks and invoices that show tens of thousands of dollars from Bright House to One Door to go toward various conference expenses.
Brown Johnson is one of a few donors who testified on Friday that they were aware that some of the money they were giving was not going to scholarships, and would instead be used on various expenses connected to putting on events. Bright House Network, for example, cut a $10,000 check to sponsor Brown’s golf tournament.
Another donor gave tens of thousands of dollars toward Brown's reception at the annual ALC conference and the veteran's even Brown also hosted that week. Richard Lipsky owns some hospital facilities that were working to open their doors to veterans who were struggling with the VA, and he admitted he believed Brown could help him with that process. In terms of the $20,000 from the hospitals and $5,000 personal check he cut to One Door, though, he knew that was to support various events with catering, entertainment, and other areas. In fact, put an additional $4,290 toward an event after getting a call from either Corrine Brown or her daughter Shantrel that something happened with a portion of a catering bill, asking for his help to cover it.
Some $90,000 was given by the Picerne Development Corporation to One Door- at least some in part to also host events. Director of Government Affairs Don Miller says the requests for funding from Brown and her staff to the head of the company, Bob Picerne, became so frequent that he actually tried to cut of communication at some point.
“I kind of felt like he was being taken advantage of,” Miller said.
Overall, even the donors who knew they were at least in part funding the expenses of running various events, they all also shared an expectation that excess funds, as well as their other contributions, would be going to scholarships.