Feds investigating business tied to City Councilwoman

City has threatened lawsuit over economic development grant

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – The FBI, Jacksonville Sheriff's Office and other agencies are investigating a family business tied to City Councilwoman Katrina Brown.

The business, Jerome Brown BBQ restaurant on Commonwealth Avenue on the Westside, opened in August at the same location where the family originally planned to launch a barbecue sauce manufacturing business.

FBI evidence response team vehicles could be seen outside the business Tuesday morning. Agents from the IRS criminal investigation division, the Department of Housing and Urban Development, the Office of the Inspector General and the FBI Small Business Administration division were on scene for more than three hours.

FBI agents could be seen loading boxes into the FBI evidence truck before crews left.

None of the agents would discuss why they were at the property.

Jerome Brown could not be reached for comment Tuesday.

Attorney Alan Ceballis, who is not involved with the case, explained why those federal agencies would be involved in the raid.

"It means the United States attorney’s office has at least initiated a grand jury matter," Ceballis said. "It means the federal agencies have consulted with a federal prosecutor and established enough data to convey to a federal judge that there is probable cause that there is evidence of a crime."

In a nutshell, they are looking into what happened, and for that many agencies to be involved, it would have to involve more than just bad bookkeeping.

"It means you knew you were doing something wrong, and you did it anyway," Ceballis said.

According to city records, the business at that address owes $22,000 in back property taxes in 2015 alone. Records also show that the business has yet to pay nearly $19,000 in property taxes this year. The family also owes property taxes on its Edgewood Avenue restaurant – $2,700 in 2015, and $2,400 in 2016.

Earlier this year, the city of Jacksonville told another company linked to the Brown family, COWEALTH LLC, that it needs to repay a redevelopment grant, because it has not followed the terms of its agreement.

READ: City letter demanding payment | City letter advising grant default

The city said it could sue the company if the money is not repaid.

A letter, dated June 24 and addressed to JoAnn Brown, Katrina Brown’s mother, and COWEALTH LLC, stated that the company needed to pay $210,549.99 within 15 days. According to state records, JoAnn Brown is the registered agent of COWEALTH LLC, and an officer of the company. Katrina Brown, elected to represent District 8 in 2015, is also listed as an officer.

Part of that grant money included federal dollars from the Small Business Administration.

According to the letter, the company agreed to create 56 new jobs on or before April 30, 2016, as part of its agreement for a Northwest Jacksonville Economic Development Fund grant, but failed to do so. The agreement also called for the company to submit annual reports regarding job creation, which the letter states also has not happened. The grant was to help the company launch a manufacturing facility to produce a wide range of products, including Jerome Brown's BBQ Sauce.

According to city officials, any jobs created by the restaurant will not count as part of its agreement.

City officials said that since the letter was sent, COWEALTH made loan payments on Nov. 22 from May through October, but had not dealt with the default letter's demands.

READ: Last and final notice to COWEALTH

The company has until Dec.31 to pay its 2015 property taxes ($22,515.69), make its $1,884.10 loan payments for November and December, pay a late fee payment of $188.41 for November, submit all past due annual reports and submit all require tax returns.

The city's letter outlining the remaining issues said, "Please be advised that this is our last and final notice."

Katrina Brown has not responded to a request for comment. The City Council president said she is looking into the matter. There’s no word yet on whether charges will be filed.

About the Authors: