The (Un)Sinkable Corrine Brown

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 // by A. G. Gancarski
“There are known knowns. These are things we know that we know. There are known unknowns. That is to say, there are things that we know we don’t know. But there are also unknown unknowns. There are things we don't know we don’t know.” —Donald Rumsfeld
From One Door for Education to One Door to a Prison Cell—it appears to most, except for diehards, cynics, and contrarians, that the story of former U.S. Rep-resentative Corrine Brown will end as ignominiously as have the stories of so many politicians over the years who fell prey to material temptations, losing control of their operations in the process.
Brown, barring some utter reversal in legal fortunes, could be sentenced to prison by the time you read this. This assumes that one pending motion or another doesn't prevail in an August 7 hearing, one addressing petitions for a new trial and one for an acquittal.
In the case of Corrine Brown, that is one of the known unknowns we deal with. To the educated eye—the diehard who, either because of necessity or vicarious thrill, was in the courtroom, April 18 through May 11, during the interminable prosecution phase of the case (a 20-play, clock-killing drive) or the roll-over-and-play-dead, three-plays-and punt defense—there are some known knowns also.
Two of these bear specific mention. The first known known: the present impasse for Brown, one rooted in a charity enlisted on behalf of the then-Congress-woman in 2012 to host Congressional Black Caucus events, both in Charlotte (host city for the Democratic National Convention), and in Washington, D.C.
From 2012 to 2015, One Door for Education became a cash cow for Brown, her former chief of staff, and his former girlfriend (who ceded said former chief of staff control of the charity). In three years, give or take, almost $900,000 poured into the coffers. Of that money, $1,200 could be documented as going to charitable functions to help the education of the underprivileged. While there may still be the question of “what did Brown know and when did she know it,” on count after count the jury—in its final construction, presuming some retrial doesn’t happen—was satisfied that she knew enough.
Of course, it helped that the two other people who knew what was up—Ronnie Simmons and Carla Wiley—rolled on Brown like a pin on bread dough. And it also helped that many of the cogs in the Brown machine were interchangeable accessories, also, in the gaping maw of justice.
And justice packed a wallop. That is a known known.
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Back in May, Brown was found guilty on 18 total counts, which meant a potential prison sentence of more than 300 years, and fines and restitution in the millions of dollars. On Count 1, the big enchilada, conspiracy to commit mail and wire fraud, the jury ruled that Brown was guilty of mail and wire fraud both. This count, it turned out, set the stage for findings on individual counts, establishing that despite attempts to argue that Brown was too old, slow, or infirm to keep track of her finances, the jurors believed ultimately that the buck stopped with the woman who was once the most powerful Democrat in Northeast Florida.
Counts 2 through 17 involved mail fraud and wire fraud. Counts 2 through 8: mail fraud—via FedEx shipments of checks; Counts 9 through 17—wire fraud—involved interstate wire transfers, emails, et al.
Counts 2 through 8 saw Brown's former chief of staff, Ronnie Simmons, and his girlfriend and CEO of the charity, Carla Wiley, at the other end of the mail solicited from donors, with the biggest pitch being for a check upward of $28,000 from a single donor.
Brown was the initial rainmaker, suggesting a donation for those well-heeled donors who wanted to cultivate her for favors, yet didn't want donations revealed via campaign finance reports. For those who didn't want to give to her “legal defense fund,” a construct created to fight redistricting well before Brown's July 2016 indictment, the charity was a way to do so.
And, fortuitously enough, the donors didn't ask many questions about what the charity did, or how much of the money collected went to it. Donors were focused on a different ROI.
From Florida Democratic Party chair Stephen Bittel, who arranged to let Brown's cronies use his private plane for a "fundraiser" at a Jaguars vs. Redskins game in Washington, D.C., to the New Jersey doctor who gave money to Brown for publication of a vanity magazine called Onyx, everyone involved saw Brown as a ticket to access—a Congresswoman who didn't ask questions, and in turn they wouldn't ask many either.
Quid pro quo. Brown was found guilty on five of the seven counts.
Counts 9 through 17 saw Simmons soliciting checks from donors on some, with some “pass-through” transactions reflected in some counts, through the Alexander Agency, the agency of former Brown part-time employee Von Alexander, whose testimony proved devastating.
She got rung up on seven of those counts. The others didn't go any better. On Count 19, scheme to conceal material facts on Congressional financial disclosure forms, guilty. Count 20, scheme to conceal material facts, was predicated on “underreporting income” and “bogus” charitable deductions to local non-profits.
Local political types were in the mix here. Edward Waters College, for which Brown claimed to have donated expensive furniture, saw former Jacksonville Sheriff Nat Glover and others come up to say that Brown's recall was incorrect. And though he wasn't called to the stand (reliability issues apparently precluded), Jacksonville City Councilman Reggie Gaffney's Community Rehabilitation Center served as an interesting passthrough for checks and front for the kinds of donations that were intended to lower Brown's tax burden.
Guilty. Again. And guilty on four more counts. Counts 21 to 24, four tax counts. Twenty-one involved a holistic conspiracy to “obstruct and impede the due administration of Internal Revenue laws,” with false tax returns from 2012 to 2014 constituting the final three tax counts. Brown was found guilty on all.
Brown, in all likelihood, will escape maximum sentences for her crimes. There’s only so much that can be done to someone who is 70 years old and showing the wear on the tires, the knees, and even the mind. Someone who already lost her raison d’être, a Congressional gig. Someone who sold her beach house as the trial approached—a clear bid for liquidity, a desperate gambit—as even a defendant who may have had access to free money for a few years is relatively powerless against the U.S. Attorney, FBI, and IRS, an apparatus containing normal men and women who are an all-powerful leviathan when working en masse.
Besides, there is a strong case to be made that the damage is already done. Brown embodies that old canard that politics is a relationship business. She always had an entourage. Even in this fifth act of her Cowfordian Tragedy, Brown still has well-wishers around her. And she still has some fight left in her.
“I’m prepared to go all the way. What happened with the jury should not have happened. Basically, it was a hung jury and they threw the person out. A veteran, disabled... and they threatened the rest of them,” she said in a July interview with First Coast News reporter Ken Amaro. “I find it interesting that various people make up things as they go. For example, over and over again you all said it was my charity. I work with over one hundred charities. I’m not on no board. I have nothing to do with anything pertaining to this charity. No more than I have to do with any other charities. Yet, if it wasn’t for the black media, that put out the real story, people would not know it. In addition to that, in the courtroom my attorney was like David and Goliath. You could not tell that listening to the media. You had to be in there.”
However, a recurring motif of her saga, especially since the indictment last summer is that many of those well-wishers have, by and large, fallen off like branches from a metaphorical Giving Tree, one gnarled by the elements.
At its peak, the Congresswoman Brown machine was a tree with many branches—her acolytes, her wannabees ran for and won offices from Tallahassee to D.C. Yet now, in the winter of her discontent, many of those politicians are not standing by the Congresswoman. Not in public. Not in the world of TV cameras, live mics, and notepads.
Indeed, the Brown story has been a tapestry of betrayal and unreliable narrative, mixed in with the graft that has been so breathlessly reported for so long that it just seems like another fun fact in a compendium of Jacksonville ephemera. No more or less interesting than a decision Brown made during the trial to go to the Landing to eat instead of to the Candy Apple Cafe.
The elements of the betrayal, it turns out, were planted decades ago.
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Corrine Brown’s daughter Shantrel was once a student at the University of Florida, where she was dating a young man, Ronnie Simmons. The embers of romance cooled between the younger Brown and Simmons, a slight, foppish man. However, the mother saw something in Simmons, and soon enough he was running political campaigns for Brown, and her Congressional office, setting off a couple of decades of good times before it all hit the fan.
The bond ran deep. “I loved Ronnie Simmons like a son,” Corrine Brown said on the stand.
Things went well enough until 2012, when Simmons had a problem. He and Brown needed a charity to host events around larger happenings like Congressional Black Caucus gatherings and the 2012 Democratic National Convention.
As luck would have it, Simmons’ girlfriend Carla Wiley had a solution: a 501(c)3 scholarship fund, One Door for Education. Wiley allowed Simmons access and control, and the money started flowing in, with obvious benefits for all parties.
While Wiley and Simmons directly benefited from the mismanagement of funds, with vacations and the like, so too did Corrine and Shantrel Brown. One Door became just one of a series of messy, questionable ways to give to a Florida legislator.
For those who did not want to be officially recognized as campaign contributors, such as white Republicans, there was One Door. While Brown has also had a Legal Defense Fund for years, designed to handle expenses in fighting the redistricting that ultimately put Tallahassee Democrat Al Lawson in the traditionally Jacksonville seat, giving to that also was toxic.
The money came in, Brown floated the idea to donors, Simmons and Wiley handled the detail work. No one who wrote the checks seemed to care much about whether or not the money was actually going to the stated purpose. They wanted access. That is how the game works. If they had wanted to vet the process, they could have. But what’s a few thousand dollars for an ally on Capitol Hill? Those donors buried her, one and all, on the stand. All of them with variations on the “if I had known, I wouldn’t have donated” lament.
Meanwhile, when asked on the stand why he did his part of the hustle, including the rainmaking and the cash transfers, Simmons’ justification was simple. “The Congresswoman asked me,” he said.
And as federal prosecutor A. Tysen Duva said, no one told the Congresswoman no.
Meanwhile, Brown had her own take. “I wish I paid closer attention to my finances,” she said. “I was always busy working.”
One Door was just one example of a Corrine Brown operation that looked shady from the outside, but which just didn’t become a big deal outside of peripatetic press reports. Another example of such: the “Quick Picks” endorsement sheets that Brown rolled out in local markets throughout her territory through the 2016 primary. Brown described those sheets—with the endorsed parties often picking up the cost of printing, a fee variable dependent on apparent whim—as like “cheat sheets at the dog track.”
People who didn’t get the endorsement, including one defeated City Council candidate, balked at first. But they ended up as adjuncts to her political machine. One of them even ended up going to a Congressional Black Caucus Boot Camp on her recommendation—in yet another example of how Brown, at her peak, was able to parlay and exploit relationships to keep her political machine running.
To sum up where things were through most of 2015, Brown had donors, including those who gave to the GOP historically, backchanneling money into her operation. She had a reliable chief of staff running the office and ensuring the cash got to where it needed to. And despite a reputation for messy process, she was teflon.
That changed early in 2016, when the FBI began to make its move. Brown was served a subpoena along with her meat and sides while dining with political associates at a local barbecue restaurant; a Bono’s on Norwood Avenue, a popular gathering place for politicians. The FBI, around that time, also had questions from Brown, Simmons, and Wiley. And the pressure started to build, a pressure that ultimately would cause the symbiosis between Brown and Simmons to crumble, with Simmons characterizing the FBI interlocution as an “a-ha moment.”
How important was that relationship? “I kept the pulse of the political realm pretty tight … contact with donors, high-profile people,” Simmons said during his testimony. But the relationship developed a fissure. The money from One Door dried up. The trial moved forward, concomitant with Brown running her last campaign with no money coming in. Damaged goods.
In fact, the most damage of all, in terms of state testimony, arguably came from Brown’s former aide de camp, Von Alexander. Alexander, who handled a lot of Brown’s Jacksonville business with media in addition to working as a liaison for the Jacksonville Transportation Authority, offered testimony affirming that Brown knew how the scam was operating.
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For years, said Alexander, she was “not in a position to tell Corrine Brown no” when it came to taking money from one source and getting it to the Congresswoman. At times, her PR agency would even be used as a pass through.
“My directives came from the Congresswoman. I would call Ronnie Simmons to tell him what I did,” Alexander said. “She told me the amount she needed to have. She told me what to put on the check,” Alexander said, adding that she even signed a check at Brown’s direction.
Brown, for her part, opted to disclaim responsibility for the three-year period of time covered in the One Door period.
“Let’s be truthful with this. I did not double-check my taxes. It was a mistake. Several people worked on my taxes,” Brown said during her defense testimony. When asked about checks that went into her account from One Door, Brown also denied knowledge. “I don’t know who wrote this check … I am saying this is not my signature and I did not write it,” she said.
However, the money quote of the trial came in discussing gaps between her financial disclosures and the cash flow in her account; Brown routinely had more money than she reported. “I know how to rob Peter to pay Paul,” Brown said, inadvertently summing up the complex narrative of the case into one pithy sentence.
As it stands now, Brown is guilty of the aforementioned 18 counts. She doesn’t agree, of course, calling the trial a “witch hunt,” one raising “serious concerns” about the jury and the criminal justice system. A hearing August 7 may change that guilty verdict. It probably won’t. The hearing, addressing motions for a new trial and for acquittal, boils down to the following contentions.
The motion for a new trial was predicated on a claim that a juror who got bounced because he was compelled in decision-making by the Holy Spirit was removed erroneously. The juror had said that the Holy Spirit had told him Brown was innocent. The court asserted that got in the way of his ability to evaluate evidence. Brown’s team disagrees.
“During deliberations, Juror 13 said the Holy Spirit had told him that Ms. Brown was not guilty. The Court found that the Holy Spirit was an external force, and dismissed the juror. After Juror 13 was dismissed, Ms. Brown was found guilty. The Court’s finding that the Holy Spirit is an external force is not supported by the record. There is a substantial possibility the Holy Spirit was actually the juror’s own mind telling him that one or more witnesses had not testified truthfully. Therefore, justice requires that Ms. Brown be granted a new trial,” the motion reads.
And the motion for acquittal was predicated on essentially re-litigating the trial, to again make the case that Brown was a dupe of her staffer and his girlfriend when it came to the hustle, and she was too old and enfeebled to do anything about it.
The attorney for Brown’s former co-defendant, chief of staff, and co-conspirator doubts the probity of these motions. Simmons’ lawyer, Anthony Suarez, spoke with FloridaPolitics.com’s Terry Roen in mid-July. He is skeptical of these motions.
“I’ve examined the motions and believe they’re not strong enough because they don’t cite a lot of case law,” said Suarez. “They’re not going to be successful.”
Case law notwithstanding, Brown’s attorney James W. Smith III has been creative in his strategy with his combustible client. His defense was essentially a one-woman show, featuring Corrine Brown explaining she had little input into the case. He’s worked media well, specifically the television side, giving interviews with his client to make her seem more sympathetic. One TV reporter, after being granted a sit down with Brown, actually thought the Congresswoman might be innocent. Mission accomplished.
But even Smith seems to know what time it is, as Action News Jax’s reporter Jenna Bourne scooped, Smith sent a letter to Brown’s supporters urging them to write Judge Timothy Corrigan, who tried the case, reminding him of Brown’s good works over the years, and urging sentence leniency. And recent history tells us that throwing one’s self on the mercy of the court is a viable strategy.
State Representative Reggie Fullwood, a Jacksonville Democrat, faced 240 years of prison time for a variety of campaign finance fraud charges. He cried on the stand, had witnesses (including his soon-to-be-ex-father-in-law) attest to his character. Fullwood had, unlike Brown, pleaded out, copping guilty to two counts. He got supervised release, 180 days of house arrest, and $60,500 in fines and forfeiture, with an additional $42,500 in IRS penalties. By all appearances, Brown is not ready to concede.
“We’ll deal with it. I’ve talked to a lot of lawyers around the country. And, of course, it’s unfortunate that I continue to have to go through this but that’s life. The community has been very supportive. Everywhere I go," she told Amaro.  “And let me tell you something, I appreciate the people telling me that they’re preying for me because they know, you know, the Bible say [sic] turn your head and you shouldn’t have hatred in your heart, well I’m waiting for them to move the hatred from my heart because the attack that goes on with black elected officials in this community and in this state is unacceptable and particularly in this area.”
Lots of known knowns and known unknowns were revealed in court this spring. The unknown unknowns, meanwhile, boil down like this. Will Corrine Brown find a way to escape prison? And if not, how does she handle it?