JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – The federal corruption trial against U.S. Rep. Corrine Brown has been delayed until at least November to give her more time to hire new lawyers after her third legal team was allowed to bow out Tuesday, after just signing on to the case last week.
Prominent Orlando attorneys Mark NeJame and David Haas filed a motion to withdraw from the case two days after taking it on, citing “irreconcilable differences” and “an atmosphere of hostility and distrust.”
After emptying the courtroom to discuss the specifics -- which fall under attorney-client privilege -- with NeJame, Haas and Brown, Judge James Klindt agreed to the motion Tuesday, allowing them to drop Brown as a client.
Brown, D-Florida, and her chief of staff, Ronnie Simmons, are accused of using an unregistered charity to raise $800,000 that prosecutors said they used as a personal "slush fund."
Among the 22 federal charges against Brown are counts of conspiracy, mail and wire fraud and violation of tax laws.
Klindt also agreed Tuesday to push the start of Brown's federal corruption trial back to Nov. 7.
The next status hearing, which will again address Brown's issue of retaining counsel, will be at 3 p.m. Sept. 7.
“I have the best attorneys. That is not the issue,” Brown said. “I am putting together a team, and it's just not easy to do that, particularly when you're like me -- a lawyer want-to-be.”
NeJame said the problem was not financial. He said the reason he and Haas are stepping down is because they are friends with Brown, and you just should not represent friends.
“There has been a lot of speculation that she was trying to drag this case on,” NeJame said. “You heard it right from the judge himself that she is not doing that. She is making every good faith effort, and we concur that it is best for her to bring on new counsel.”
The trio confirmed they would still be friends, and Brown even sealed it with a kiss.
"It is simply a break-up, and sometimes you break up (kiss) and you don't talk again, and sometimes you break up because it's best to remain friends," NeJame said. "We wish her the best. We continue to be friends. We will assist the new counsel in anyway, but it was best for her in our opinion."
Brown said the case has taken a toll on her, but she is still fighting.
“It's causing work overtime, but that's what I do anyway,” Brown said. “I'm on-call 24/7 all the time, but I still have my constituent work and campaigns is not going to change for what I'm doing as far as what I have to do for my constituents.”
Brown's trial now begins one week before the November election.
"I am running my campaign, and the legal team, we are pulling it together," Brown said.
Trouble keeping lawyers
Prominent local civil rights attorneys Betsy White and Bill Sheppard represented her when the indictment was unsealed, and attorney Greg Kehoe of Miami-based international law firm Greenberg Traurig appeared on her behalf at a hearing.
Simmons also might have issues with his representation. Prosecutors said Tuesday that there may be a potential conflict with Simmons' attorney.
According to a court filing, Simmons' attorney, Anthony Suarez, represented a witness who came before the grand jury that brought the indictments against Brown and Simmons. If that person gets called to testify during a trial, and Suarez has to cross-examine the witness, their history becomes a conflict.
Former federal prosecutor Curtis Fallgatter, who is now a criminal defense attorney, said whomever Brown's new attorney is, federal court statute is that once the trial starts, the attorney can't quit if Brown runs out of money. The case has 77,000 pages of evidence documents.
"My last case, I had a million pages, so,you don't need a large firm to do it,” Fallgatter said. “You need at least one good lawyer that knows how to handle white collar cases in federal court."
But Fallgatter said that attorney isn't going to want to take on a case and not get paid for it, and last week following the News4Jax debate, Brown admitted she was having financial troubles.
"But it's very, it's very challenging to balance both, you know, running a campaign and your legal bills,” Brown said.
Fallgatter estimates representation could cost Brown up to half a million dollars. Fallgatter said Brown could get creative in paying for her attorney.
"If the lawyer is willing, the lawyer can say, 'Well, here's my fee. And, you've got X amount of that fee. I'll take that now and put it in my account. And you'll secure the balance with mortgages or promissory notes,'” Fallgatter said.
Fallgatter said some attorneys might be willing to take payments and that Brown could use any type of property as collateral. But Brown's financial disclosure forms to Congress show her net assets are almost zero. She has as little as $2,000 to $30,000 in cash and three outstanding mortgages worth up to $1 million, plus a personal loan that totals between $15,000 and $50,000.
Her salary is $174,000 but that's contingent on her winning re-election this fall.
Supporters, lawyers watching case
Supporters and some notable attorneys were on hand Tuesday to sit in on Brown's case and watch the proceedings.
Hank Coxe and former city of Jacksonville general counsel Cindy Laquidara were among those watching.
Mary Dennis was just one of Brown's supporters outside of the federal courthouse building Tuesday. She said she knows Brown and other politicians aren't perfect.
“They're not going to be a miracle workers, and I really do believe that they're not miracle workers and they're not going to be all good but they're not going to be all bad,” Dennis said. “I'm all for our leaders, and I'm going to stand for our leaders, and I'm going to pray for them.”