Rep. Corrine Brown and her chief of staff have been indicted for soliciting money intended for a educational purposes and then using the money for personal use.
Brown, a Florida democrat, and her chief of staff are facing federal fraud and conspiracy charges for allegedly soliciting more than $800,000 in donations to an education charity, One Door Education Foundation Inc., according to a U.S. News and World Report article. They then allegedly used the organization's money "as a personal slush fund," according to Assistant Attorney General Leslie Caldwell.
On July 8, Brown and her chief of staff, Elias "Ronnie" Simmons, were officially accused of fraudulently acquiring donations for One Door. The donations were intended to be used for education purposes like college scholarships and school computer drives.
According to the indictment, very little of the money was actually used for education. Records show One Door has awarded a total of just $1,200 in scholarships to two students. Instead, Brown, Simmons and Carla Wiley, the president of One Door, are accused of using tens of thousands of the money for themselves. The trio have been accused of using the funds from the organization to pay for conference receptions, car repairs, a golf tournament in Ponte Verde Beach (in Brown's honor) and even a luxury box during an NFL game.
According to the Justice Department, the indictment contains 24 counts, including multiple charges: conspiracy to commit mail and wire fraud, mail and wire fraud, concealing income on financial disclosures required of Congress members, theft of government property and four counts of violating tax laws. In addition, Brown will face a congressional ethics probe.
"Corrupt public officials undermine the integrity of our government and violate the public's trust," said Michelle Klimt, special agent in charge of the FBI's Jacksonville Division. "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."
In March, One Door president Wiley pleaded guilty for her part in the scandal. Wiley, from Virginia, ultimately reached a plea deal.
Four months later, Brown pleaded not guilty to the charges in a federal Jacksonville courtroom. Her chief of staff Simmons also plead not guilty. After insisting to reporters that she was innocent, Brown, who has largely focused on veterans issues and transportation, said she would "let the work I've done speak for me."
"My heart is just really heavy," Brown, 69, said. "This has been a very difficult time for me, my family, my constituents. But I'm looking forward to a speedy day in court to vindicate myself. â¦ We've got the rest of the story. So I'm looking forward to presenting the rest of the story."
Regardless of the charges, a large base of supporters rallied outside the Jacksonville courtroom holding signs backing Brown. In addition, some of her government support is still in place. State Sen. Audrey Gibson, a Jacksonville Democrat who has been mentioned as a possible successor to Brown, said she was standing behind the accused congresswoman.
"She's done some solid things for this city, and she'll continue to do solid things for this city," said Patrick Macon, a Jacksonville resident and supporter, to a WRLN reporter. "I think it's just a little mud-slinging, but who knows, she's going to be tried."
Brown, who was first elected to Congress in 1992, represents Florida's Fifth Congressional District, which covers a long, thin stretch of the state between Jacksonville and Orlando. Challenging her in this election cycle is former state senator Al Lawson, who calls Brown's case, "unfortunate." According to a recent poll by the Jacksonville-based Public Opinion Research Laboratory at the University of North Florida, Brown has a three-point lead over Lawson.
In a blog post, Brown maintained her innocence and suggested that race played a factor in the charges against her. She also reminded voters of all that she has done for them.
"Yet my conscience is clear because I'm innocent," Brown said. "I'm not the first black elected official to be persecuted and, sad to say, I won't be the last. â¦ Despite all the heartache my family and I have experienced, I want you to know that I'm still in the fight to provide the representation you deserve in Washington."