Congresswoman Corrine Brown has been federally indicted over her connection to a “bogus” non-profit.
Brown, a longtime Democratic Congresswoman in Northeast Florida, faces 22 counts. The indictment charges her with one count of conspiracy to commit mail and wire fraud, sixteen counts of mail and wire fraud, one count of scheme to conceal material facts, one count corrupt endeavor to obstruct and impede the due administration of the internal revenue laws, and three counts of filing a false return.
Brown’s Chief of Staff Elias “Ronnie” Simmons has also been indicted on 19 counts, including one count of conspiracy to commit mail and wire fraud, sixteen counts of mail and wire fraud, one count of theft of government funds, one count of scheme to conceal material facts
If convicted, Brown could face 357 years in prison. Simmons is looking at a maximum sentence of 355 years. Both pled not guilty in federal court Friday, choosing to have an arraignment instead of just making a first appearance.
“Our Office is committed to ferreting out and prosecuting all forms of corruption and fraud, regardless of who the offender is. In our nation, no one is above the law,” says a statement from US Attorney A Lee Bentley III.
The charges stem from the ties Brown and Simmons have to an organization called "One Door for Education". We first told you in March that the head of the group- which Brown had promoted as a charity- pled guilty to wire fraud for allegedly collecting more than $800,000 in donations but using the money instead for personal gain. Carla Wiley agreed to cooperate as the government continued to build its case against two other co-conspirators who were unnamed in the court documents. These indictments confirm prior speculation that Brown and Simmons were the unnamed parties.
The donations were allegedly used for personal expenses of the three parties, including travel, personal auto repairs, and entertainment. The indictment says $200,000 in donations to One Door was used instead for events hosted by Brown and held in her honor, including a golf tournament in Ponte Vedra Beach, a luxury box at a Beyonce concert, receptions at an annual conference in DC, and a luxury box at a game between the Jaguars and the Redskins in DC. There are several pages in the indictment detailing the exchange of money between One Door’s account and those of the involved parties.
While prosecutors claim the trio collected more than $800,000 through One Door, only two scholarships totaling $1200 were ever paid out, according to the indictment.
“Corrupt public officials undermine the integrity of our government and violate the public’s trust. That is why public corruption is the FBI’s top criminal priority. It is incredibly disappointing that an elected official, who took an oath year after year to serve others, would exploit the needs of children and abuse the charitable hearts of constituents to advance her own personal and political agendas and deliver them with virtually nothing,” says a statement from FBI Jacksonville Special Agent in Charge Michelle Klimt.
On several occasions in the court records, the government claims Brown used the influence of her office to solicit these donations, and along with the other parties they misrepresented that One Door was fully registered as a non-profit, even though it wasn’t.
Brown is separately charged with “fraudulently inflating and fabricating her total gifts to charity” in tax filings. For the purpose of getting a deduction, the indictment says in Tax Year 2013, Brown claimed to donate $19,100 to a non-profit, two churches, and One Door, but only actually donated $3,495. In Tax Year 2014, she claimed to donate $26,700 to two non-profits, two churches, and One Door, but the indictment claims she only gave $4,378. She’s also charged with failing to disclose reportable income she received from One Door, an independent consulting business, and Friends of Corrine Brown- an official campaign committee.
Simmons faces a charge of theft of government funds over using his position to help get a “close relative” a job with the US House of Representatives, where the person worked 15 years and collected about $735,000, but did little or no work, according to the indictment. Simmons is accused of using at least $80,000 of that money for himself, including paying a boat loan and credit card bills.
The trial date has been set for September 6th.
"I'm looking forward to a speedy day in court to vindicate myself," Brown says.
After the federal court hearing, Brown and her attorney spoke briefly with reporters about what they believe to be politically and racially motivated charges.
"In reality, she has endured a one-sided inquisition in the court of public opinion for over one year,” says Brown’s attorney Betsy White.
White says Brown was willing to comply with all of the conditions from the government on how to surrender, but asked the process be delayed one week so she could complete some votes in the House. She says that was denied.
"Its decision to treat Congresswoman Brown like a common street criminal rather than a sitting member of Congress, shows that this is a politically motivated prosecution," White says.
According to House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi, Brown has stepped down from her position as Ranking Member of the house Committee on Veterans’ Affairs “pending the resolution of this matter”. The statement from Pelosi says this falls in line with standing rules of the House Democratic Caucus.
The House Ethics Committee opened an Investigative Subcommittee on Brown in March, but immediately put the investigation on hold because of the pending DOJ probe. They have no official comment now that the indictment has been released.