- Jim Saunders News Service of Florida
Describing the fraud as “shameless,” a federal judge in Jacksonville sentenced former Democratic Congresswoman Corrine Brown to five years in prison Monday for her role in a scam that involved using charitable contributions for personal expenses and events.
The sentence, imposed by U.S. District Judge Timothy Corrigan, came after Brown was convicted in May on 18 felony counts. Corrigan also sentenced to prison Brown’s longtime chief of staff, Ronnie Simmons, and a woman who started the purported charity, Carla Wiley.
In a 25-page sentencing order, Corrigan said the One Door for Education charity, which was originally established to help children, was “operated as a criminal enterprise” by Brown, Simmons and Wiley. He detailed how the charity raised hundreds of thousands of dollars, which forensic accountants said was siphoned off in cash withdrawals and used for such things as sky box seats at an NFL game and a luxury box at a Beyonce concert.
“These defendants systematically looted One Door funds which otherwise would have been available to help deserving children,” Corrigan said in the sentencing order. “Just think of the good that could have been done with that money if it had been used for its proper purpose.”
The Florida Times-Union reported that Brown, who served 24 years in Congress until losing a re-election bid last year, will report to prison no earlier than Jan. 8. The Times-Union also reported that Brown’s attorney, James Smith, said she will appeal the sentence.
The sentencing was a final step in the downfall of Brown, 71, long an influential figure in Jacksonville politics and the city’s African-American community. The 12-term congresswoman, whose district stretched from Jacksonville to Orlando, was also a master of constituent services, using “Corrine Delivers” as a slogan to tout her ability to bring home projects and services.
In a sentencing memo filed last month, Brown’s attorney said she had been one of the “greatest soldiers” in the civil-rights movement. Smith requested that she receive probation and community service, rather than a prison sentence.
“Corrine Brown’s life from this point forward will be extremely difficult,” Smith wrote. “She will never hold public offense again. The stigma of her federal convictions will make it extremely difficult, if not impossible, for her to find productive and gainful employment. There is simply no reasonable basis to believe that she will ever commit another crime.”
In his order Monday, Corrigan said that he “seriously” considered the request for probation and community service, “but a sentence of probation for a member of Congress convicted of 18 counts involving mail, wire, and tax fraud would not be sufficient.”
Corrigan said Brown, one of the first black members of Congress from Florida since Reconstruction, was a “trailblazer who also has lifted up others.”
“But, having overcome all hurdles and risen to high office, Ms. Brown unfortunately succumbed to greed and an entitlement mentality,” Corrigan said.
The judge also sentenced Simmons to four years in prison and Wiley to 21 months. He said Wiley started the One Door for Education charity in 2011 to establish scholarships for students who were interested in becoming teachers, like Wiley’s mother.
“The defendants’ fraud was particularly shameless because it utilized a charity established to honor Ms. Wiley’s mother that was supposed to help disadvantaged children,” he said in the sentencing order. “Yet precious little of the hundreds of thousands of dollars donated to One Door was used for this purpose. Rather, One Door funds were primarily used to line the pockets of Ms. Wiley, Mr. Simmons and Ms. Brown or to fund events that mainly benefited Ms. Brown, but did not help children.”