Can Corrine Brown afford her defense team?

12-term congresswoman, her chief of staff face dozens of federal charges

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – An eight-page financial form filed with Congress shows Rep. Corrine Brown is tight on cash and assets as she prepares for a trial on federal corruption charges. One legal expert estimates that her legal defense could cost up to $500,000.

Brown was indicted July 8 on 19 counts, including conspiracy, mail and wire fraud, as well as filing false tax returns.

At a hearing Tuesday, Mark NeJame and his associate David Haas, from a high-profile Orlando law firm, committed to defending Brown. NeJame -- who previously represented Tiger Woods and Casey Anthony's parents -- has been called the Johnnie Cochran of central Florida.

I-TEAM: Corrine Brown gets new attorneys

Asked about the his fee, NeJame sent the I-TEAM a statement:

A discussion about our fee arrangement wouldn't be appropriate.  I've known Congresswoman Brown for many years and would hope that the community she has tirelessly served recognizes the immense good work she has done for two decades. She is entitled to the presumption of innocence and vigorously denies any wrongdoing which will ultimately be established."

Former federal prosecutor Curtis Fallgatter, who is not connected this case, looked over Brown's financial report and raised a concern about her being able to pay for a first-rate legal team.

Two months before her July indictment, Brown listed having between $2,000 and $30,000 in the bank. She earns $174,000 annually as a member of Congress, but that's contingent on her winning re-election this fall.

Brown, a 12-term congresswoman, is running for re-election in the 5th Congressional District and faces two challengers in the Aug. 30 Democratic primary. If she wins the Democratic nomination, she'll face a Republican candidate in the November general election.

Brown has three outstanding mortgages on homes, one in Jacksonville, a beach house in Fernandina Beach and a home in Virginia. The forms don’t list exact values of the mortgages -- listing ranges instead -- and the amounts owed could add up to as much as $1 million.

Brown also lists a personal loan, owing between $15,000 and $50,000.

"She could have a net worth close to zero, or certainly not anything substantial," Fallgatter said. "In her financial disclosure forms, it was always a question to me: 'Could she have sufficient resources to hire a lawyer?'"

The I-TEAM combed through years of her financial disclosure forms and there was no mention of income or gifts from the One Door for Education, the charity prosecutors said she and her chief of staff used to funnel $800,000 through as a personal slush fund..

In Brown’s 2015 form, she also lists 14 separate gifts totaling $65,000 to her legal expenses trust. She’s been getting donations like these for several years.

Among the donors:

Association of American Railroads, Cruise Lines International PAC, Union Pacific, Holland American Line, the CEO  of Royal Caribbean Cruise Lines and his wife, the chairman of Carnival Cruise Lines and his wife, property owners The Vestcor Company and trucking companies JB Hunt and Werner Enterprises. Each entity game $5,000.

Brown's chief of staff fails to show up for hearing

Brown's chief of staff failed to show up in federal court Tuesday afternoon for another hearing on multiple charges of wire and mail fraud, tax fraud and conspiracy. 

About 90 minutes after the hearing was to start, word came that Simmons was in Maryland, where he lives, and that he thought his lawyer had filed paperwork excusing him from appearing.

The judge gave Simmons the benefit of the doubt and did not impose any sanctions for his lack of appearance.

“I think this was a genuine problem with communication, and I don’t think Mr. Simmons was intentionally ignoring the order of the court," U.S. Magistrate James Klindt said.

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