Former U.S. Rep. Corrine Brown, the diminutive and flamboyant woman who held tight control of Jacksonville Democratic politics for a quarter century, exerting influence over city agencies and the school board, was convicted Thursday on 18 counts of conspiracy, mail and wire fraud and tax charges.
Brown couldn’t overcome a mountain of evidence from federal prosecutors that showed she was deeply involved in a sham charity that was really a secret pool of cash used to finance elaborate parties, vacation getaways and shopping sprees. Twelve jurors unanimously convicted her on 18 of 22 counts, a raft of crimes that also includes filing false tax returns from 2012 through 2014 and making false claims on income disclosure forms reported to the U.S. House of Representatives.
Those financial crimes could put her in prison for years or potentially the rest of her life.
After the verdict, Brown exited the federal courthouse in unusual silence and in locked arms with Bishop Rudolph McKissick Sr. — who presides over one of the city’s most prominent black churches and one of Brown’s closest friends — while a mob of reporters shouted questions and a news helicopter chopped overhead. She got in the back seat of a Mercedes
James Smith III, Brown’s defense lawyer, said he will file motions in the coming weeks requesting a new trial.
“This is just part one,” he said.
The remarkable unraveling of the 12-term former congresswoman — who in 1992 became one of the first black candidates elected to Congress from Florida since Reconstruction — was aided in large part by her former chief of staff, Ronnie Simmons, who set his 30-year relationship with Brown on fire after he decided in February to plead guilty and become the government’s star witness.
The verdict came three days after closing arguments in a trial where Brown was painted as living the high life on cash that aides secretly deposited in her bank account after passing it through other accounts.
Brown remained free after the verdict was announced. She is expected to be sentenced within 120 days.
The jury convicted Brown of 18 of the 22 separate criminal counts a grand jury indicted her for in July. The convictions involve conspiracy, mail fraud, wire fraud, tax crimes and hiding income she should have publicly reported.
She was found not guilty of two counts of mail fraud and two counts of wire fraud.
Brown could in theory be sentenced to decades in prison, but that decision is likely more than three months away. No sentencing date was immediately set.
Each fraud or conspiracy conviction carries a potential 20-year sentence, and each tax conviction three years. Hiding income could lead to another five-year sentence.
The convictions affirm parts of a narrative prosecutors told of Brown breaking laws while she lived an unsustainable expensive lifestyle that left her desperate for cash.
Jurors were told the brash 70-year-old Democratic icon, who spent 24 years in Congress before losing reelection last year, received $141,000 in untraceable cash over several years through sources including the sham charity One Door for Education and her Friends of Corrine Brown campaign committee.
An FBI accountant testified Brown, who earned around $175,000 a year as a member of Congress with a pension from the Florida Legislature, spent an average of $1,438 per month more than her reported income.
“Former Congresswoman Brown took an oath year after year to serve others, but instead she exploited the needs of children and deceived her constituents to advance her own personal and political agendas,” said FBI Jacksonville Division Special Agent in Charge Charles Spencer in a prepared statement.
“Corrupt public officials undermine the integrity of our government and violate the public’s trust, and that is why investigating public corruption remains the FBI’s top criminal priority,” Spencer said. “I am proud of our special agents, analysts and support personnel who spent countless hours following the money trail in this case, and thank our law enforcement partners at the IRS-CI and U.S. Attorney’s Office for their efforts to hold Brown and her associates accountable for their inexcusable actions.”
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