Jacksonville, FL — Now-former Congresswoman Corrine Brown claimed tens of thousands of dollars in donations of cash, checks, and items to various local non-profits in recent years- but the records from those groups are showing things don’t add up.
In some cases, there is a lack of any record. In other cases where Brown has a letter acknowledging her contribution, the groups say their books are telling a different story.
Earlier this week, Brown's tax preparer walked the court through the individual returns Brown has filed since 2008. WOKV gave you a comprehensive look at not just the top lines, but the charitable contributions Brown deducted- or sought to deduct- each year, as prosecutors worked to back up the tax-related charges Brown is facing in addition to the fraud counts.
Now, the non-profits themselves are testifying that- while Brown has in many cases done important work to help boost their organizations- the donations are not stacking up.
In 2014, Brown claimed a $3500 donation to the Clara White Mission. The President and CEO of that organization, Ju’Coby Pittman says they have many procedures in place to closely track and record donations, and that her staff would also let her know if a sitting Congresswoman made a donation of that size. Not only does she have no recollection of such a donation, but she says the Mission has no records documenting a donation from Brown any year since 2009.
The General Manager of New Destiny Christian Center, Doug Shackelford, says they kept close records of contributions, and those records show some donations from Brown, but nothing close to what she claimed in her filings. As an example, Brown claimed $2,500 in donations in 2013. Shackelford says there records show only a $50 contribution.
On cross-examination, Shackleford told the court there are a few donations that aren’t tracked- specifically if someone gives without submitting their information. He added that Brown never approached the Center to say there was any problem with her statement.
Brown’s tax preparer Dawn Wright says she is not required to have documentation to support a claimed deduction, although it’s preferred. She testified that they’re able to take Brown at her word, although Wright said she did get uncomfortable as the receipts fell off in recent years.
There were other years where Brown did provide letters acknowledging and thanking her for her contributions from different organizations, but testimony is showing a conflict between what was on paper and reality.
Brown worships at Bethel Baptist Church, and during the years studied in this investigation, there was record of her donating every year. Between 2008 and 2011, the receipts matched the contributions Brown claimed on her taxes. From 2012 to 2014, the receipts weren’t submitted on her returns. Prosecutors later found the receipts, and learned the donations Brown was claiming in that time were higher than what the Church’s books reflected, sometimes by a few thousand dollars.
In 2015- after this investigation began- the numbers were matching and the receipt was submitted once again.
The Community Rehabilitation Center is a local non-profit that has come up in testimony on several occasions through this trial, in part because Brown claimed years of deductions from donations to the organization. In fact, on her 2010 return, she tried to deduct $10,000 worth of her “time”- but when that was denied by her tax preparer, Brown filed a new letter that acknowledged a $10,000 contribution of goods. The government’s investigation would eventually find that one of her staffers had a file which contained several versions of a CRC donor letter, including one that wasn’t signed and one that didn’t have a donation amount.
CRC Fiscal Manager Dawn Smith told the court that, despite the letters to Brown, their books show no record of a cash or check deposit from Brown in any year since 2008. The CRC Executive Director Reginald Gaffney- who is now a Jacksonville City Councilman- signed that donor letter several years.
On cross examination, Smith admitted that- prior to when she started in her current role two years ago- the record keeping connected to their donations was “challenged”. She acknowledged that, while they couldn’t find record of a donation, she couldn’t definitively say none had occurred.
Another institution which Brown claimed donations to over several years is Edward Waters College. Several employees of the College- including its President- painted a complicated picture that shows Brown may have recently claimed donated furniture that she actually gave more than 15 years ago.
EWC President Nat Glover says he tries to personally acknowledge any contribution to the College that’s over $2,000 or so, and he would be notified if a sitting Congresswoman had made any substantial contribution. Brown submitted EWC letters in three years of her recent returns claiming a $12,000 donation of furniture in 2008, an $8,000 donation of furniture in 2009, and a $9,500 contribution in 2011. Glover started serving as interim President of EWC in May 2010, and that position became permanent in 2011. Glover testified that the claimed 2011 contribution was never brought to his attention, and further the EWC books do not show any cash contribution of that amount of Brown.
What he did know is Brown claimed to have donated the furniture in the Office of the President and Presidential Conference Room, and he didn't think the total $20,000 valuation of that furniture was unreasonable. Therefore, when the EWC Office of Institutional Advancement said Brown was seeking letters to back up those donations, Glover said not to "split hairs", and that he had every reason to believe the Congresswoman was being truthful.
The Vice President of Institutional Advancement, Eurmon Hervey, was more hesitant, though.
Hervey says he got a call from a higher up at EWC saying Brown said she hadn’t been acknowledged for several gifts previously given. Testimony from an IRS employee showed an auditor, Brown, and some representatives of Brown met mid 2010 in connection to Brown’s claims of charitable contribution, and the phone call to EWC came just a few days before that sit down.
Hervey didn’t have firsthand knowledge of the furniture being donated, except that it was in place when he joined the institution in 2009. He says Glover recommended they give Brown the benefit of the doubt.
In regard to the $9,500 contribution claimed in Brown’s 2011 return, Hervey says he had a lot of “apprehension” signing that. They got a similar call as with the furniture, saying Brown hadn’t been acknowledged, but Hervey says he told them he would not write the letter. A few days later, he says Brown made an unannounced stop at this office, pointing out items in the conference room she claimed to have donated- including a series of collector dolls. He believed those items had all been there for years.
“Did you feel you were forced to write this letter?” asked Assistant US Attorney A. Tysen Duva.
“I will say that a visit from a sitting Congresswoman is certainly unexpected,” Hervey responded.
He further said he likely wouldn’t have written the letter if Brown herself hadn’t showed up.
“Yes, this is not the way it’s always done,” Hervey said.
Two more witnesses gave greater details on the timeline- both testifying that the furniture and dolls in question had been at EWC well before the years Brown was claiming. Charles McCormick has worked at EWC for 18 years, currently serving in business and finance. He says the Presidential Suite- including the office and conference room- were refurbished around 2001-2002, and that’s when most of the furniture came in, if not earlier. The only exception was a glass case and the content, including the dolls, but McCormick says those were in place by 2005. Another longtime employee, Linda Foster, further testified that she believed all of the furniture was installed before she joined EWC in 2003.
McCormick says Brown was, in fact, involved in donating the furniture- because he remembered her saying how she wanted it laid out. He did not have firsthand knowledge whether Brown had paid for the furniture.
Most of these groups spoke of Brown as a champion for their causes. Pittman says they were having funding for a housing project held up, but one phone call to Brown and it was fixed in less than a day. Glover says Brown was available to help them with legislative issues and other needs.
The prosecution has now rested its case.
Brown is facing several counts of filing a false tax return as part of the greater indictment connected to "One Door For Education". That's a group Brown and two others are accused of promoting as a non-profit, in order to solicit donations they were actually using for their own personal expenses. Those two alleged co-conspirators- her former Chief of Staff Ronnie Simmons and the One Door President Carla Wiley- have both pleaded guilty and testified for the prosecution.
WOKV is inside of the courtroom following all of the testimony. Get frequent updates from our reporter Stephanie Brown on Twitter.