Corrine Brown found guilty on 18 charges
Ex-congresswoman convicted of conspiracy, mail and wire fraud, tax fraud
JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – Former U.S. Rep Corrine Brown is now a convicted felon 18 times over after she was found guilty Thursday in her federal corruption trial related to the theft of money from an unregistered Virginia-based charity.
Brown, who listened in stunned silence as the verdicts were read, was convicted of conspiracy, five counts of mail fraud, seven counts of wire fraud, one count of scheme to conceal material facts, one count of obstruction of IRS laws and three tax fraud charges. She was found not guilty of two mail fraud counts and two wire fraud counts.
Following about 11 hours of deliberations after the jury was reconfigured Wednesday morning, Judge Timothy Corrigan announced that the jury had reached verdicts in the case.
When she heard the verdicts were in, Brown left the courtroom briefly and returned with tissues, appearing as if she had been crying. She remained silent and did not react as the verdicts were read. Her daughter could be seen crying in the courtroom.
The verdicts came after prosecutors put on a detailed criminal case that outlined a pattern of fraud by Brown, 70, that included using hundreds of thousands of dollars from the One Door for Education Foundation for lavish parties, trips and shopping excursions.
Brown, a Democrat who represented the Florida district that included Jacksonville from 1993 to 2016, had pleaded not guilty to all of the charges, including fraud. She lost re-election last fall after her indictment.
As she left the courtroom after hearing the verdicts, Brown appeared shocked. She was released on the terms of her original bail until sentencing, which has not been set but is expected in 90 days.
She declined to comment as she left the federal courthouse with supporters shouting that they loved her as she piled into a car with her entourage and pulled away. She later released the following statement:
While I respect the jury's decision, I disagree with it, and I want to make it clear that I maintain my innocence. I did not commit these crimes, and I intend to file a motion for a new trial. I will continue to stand on my record of decades of faithful service to this community and the nation. I have a long record of charitable service to the community and that will continue even during this process. I want to thank my family and friends for their prayers and support during this difficult time. I ask that you continue to pray for and support me. This fight is not over and as I'm sure you know, I will continue to fight to clear my name and restore my reputation."
Brown's attorney said that he plans to file motions for a new trial, but he would not elaborate on what the grounds for those motions would be.
"This is just part one in a very long process and there are a number of motions that we intend to file that we believe will stop this case from going forward to sentencing," attorney James Smith said.
If the motions are not granted, Smith said, Brown will be back in front of the judge for her sentencing, during which a number of people who did not testify during the trial could speak.
"You don't sentence someone solely based on the charges, you sentence based on the life, and a lot of good things. And even her harshest critics would admit that she's done a lot of good things," Smith said.
Attorney Randy Reep, who has served as one of several legal analysts for News4Jax during the course of the trial, said it's not surprising Smith would move for a new trial, particularly considering one of the jurors was removed and replaced with an alternate.
"What matters in a new trial is did Corrine Brown get a fair trial based on what the judge had to rule on at the time?" Reep said. "If somebody is facing prison for a substantial amount of time, you're going to throw everything at the wall and hope a good bit sticks."
Smith said Brown asks for privacy in the days and weeks ahead. During that time, Brown's pastor, Bishop Rudolph McKissick Jr. of Bethel Baptist Church, said he will continue to encourage and stand by her.
"She is not in this by herself. Her daughter, we as her family will not abandon her no matter what is decided," Rudolph told News4Jax Thursday night.
McKissick said he's known Brown since he was a preschooler, and believes her as she maintains her innocence -- something he plans to say in open court if called to testify during her sentence.
"I've already told them I want to be the first one called," McKissick said.
Losing freedom, finances
If the conviction holds, Brown faces up to 277 years in prison and the possibility of paying restitution. She could also lose her Congressional pension, which insiders said would have likely been in the six-figures.
"There are federal sentencing guidelines. The important thing to know in this case is that there's no required sentence that involves prison," Smith said. "There's a lot of work to be done between now and the time that sentence is imposed."
Reep provided more clarity on how long Brown could be sentenced.
"With 18 of 22 counts of felony, if they were to stack when she got the maximum on everything, she's still looking at many lifetimes of incarceration. But that's not going to happen. But that is what she's facing on the max end," Reep said. "It's mitigating that she is 70, and she has never committed a crime. It's aggravating that there is this large sum of money, public deception -- those things will weigh up and down," he said.
According to Reep, the maximum number of years Brown could face for each count are: 20 years for the conspiracy charge, 100 years for the five counts of mail fraud, 140 years for the seven counts of wire fraud, five years for the one count of scheme to conceal material facts, three years for the one count of obstruction of IRS laws and nine more years for the three tax fraud charges -- a grand total of 277 years in prison.
But Reep said she made serve only a fraction of that time.
"I think it's very likely she does between two to three years in prison," he said. "I think (house arrest is) possible, but to think that a publicly elected official who is now been convicted of these charges does no jail time? No prison time? I think that's very unlikely."
Jury question Thursday
The 11 hours of deliberations Wednesday and Thursday followed a dramatic shake-up first thing Wednesday morning when Corrigan dismissed one juror and replaced him with an alternate, telling the jurors to throw out their previous 12 hours of discussions and start from scratch with their deliberations.
The jury asked two questions of the judge during Wednesday's deliberations, and two hours into Thursday's deliberations, the jurors sent a third question to Corrigan asking if they could see a testimony transcript from Marva Brown Johnson, who testified Friday on wire communications regarding donations from Bright House Networks to the One Door for Education charity at Brown's request.
The judge told the jurors he would think about it but that transcripts are typically not provided during deliberations and that they needed to rely on their notes. He said he would ask for a transcript to be made, which could take about 90 minutes, and that he would review the transcript before deciding whether to provide a copy to the jury.
Corrigan told them to continue deliberating in the meantime, and when he called the parties in about 1:40 p.m. to let them know his decision about the transcript, he instead announced that the jurors had reached their verdicts.
Emergency hearing called
The verdicts Thursday came after an eventful morning at the federal courthouse that included an emergency hearing with attorneys representing First Coast News, after a reporter from the media outlet attempted to contact a juror dismissed from the case Wednesday and inadvertently went to the address of a sitting juror.
The reporter knocked on the door and left a business card, but did not have actual contact with the juror, the station's general manager, Rob Mennie, said.
"Just to make sure everybody understands, we had no contact with any person at the home. Later in the day, we realized the address was actually the residence of a juror who was still seated. At that point, we immediately called the judge to make him aware of what happened," Mennie said after the hearing. "At no time did anyone from First Coast News have any contact with a juror. And to the best of our knowledge, the juror never attempted to contact First Coast News. All of us at First Coast News deeply regret this, and I want to sincerely reach out and apologize to Judge Corrigan and the two parties."
Because no actual contact was made, the lawyers for both sides agreed with Corrigan that no further action was needed and the juror in question did not need to be interviewed about the incident.
“I have repeatedly stressed to jurors not to expose themselves to media about the case,” Corrigan said. “I have every reason to believe the jury is following my instructions. I would think that if the juror felt pressured, he or she would likely have brought it to our attention. Since that did not happen, I speculate it’s an intrusion, but (that the) juror kept compliance with the court order. I would only be concerned if the juror felt concerned.”
Corrigan then extended the order for media not to contact jurors to include the juror who was dismissed from the case Wednesday.
VIEW: Media no contact order
“I feel like that the court in this case has recognized the public interest in this case, and I’ve tried to accommodate in any way I thought I could,” Corrigan said. “When I got requests, I answered them as best I could. I guess I would have thought that in return, the media would have thought to respect that process. I don’t think that was too much to ask. Whether or not we discuss this further after the trial, I do not know.”
“The jury must be free from outside forces,” he added. “When that is compromised, even inadvertently, it can present serious problems.”
Jury questions Wednesday
Within a half-hour of beginning discussions with the alternate juror on Wednesday, the jury sent a question to Corrigan about whether Brown should be considered responsible for everything on her taxes if she did not provide all the information or if she did not sign the tax forms. The judge referred the jurors to their instructions on how to view the tax counts.
During the trial, Brown's chief of staff, Ronnie Simmons, who she blamed for stealing money from unregistered Virginia charity One Door and putting it in her personal accounts without her knowledge, testified that he signed at least one of Brown's tax forms.
And in closing arguments, Brown's attorney hammered home a point about an email between Simmons and Brown's certified public accountant that indicated the two of them were working out Brown's charitable contributions list for her taxes without Brown's input, which the jury could have interpreted as her not being directly involved in the tax fraud, as the government alleged she was.
The jury asked a second question about 2:30 p.m. on whether the government has to prove all of the elements of the mail fraud counts beyond a reasonable doubt, and the judge said yes.
“I’ll make the crack that it is probably the most awesome question asked by the jury. So if you make a cake, you need the eggs, sugar, flour and milk, and if you don’t have all of them, you don’t have a cake,” said attorney Randy Reep, who has been serving as a legal expert for News4Jax. “If you don’t have all of them, you don’t make a conviction.”
Judge seats alternate
The controversy that prompted the seating of the alternate juror began when juror No. 8 contacted the court Tuesday night, saying she was concerned because there was another juror talking about "higher beings."
Corrigan, who interpreted the comment to mean "higher power," spoke to attorneys from both sides about the issue and decided to seal the courtroom Wednesday morning to interview both jurors to see if any actions needed to be taken.
After that interview, the judge dismissed juror No. 13, who was the source of No. 8's complaint, without explaining the reason except to say it was a "legal" one. He then seated the first alternate over the objections of Brown's defense attorney, James Smith.
"I have found good cause to dismiss one juror and seat an alternate," Corrigan said.
Reep said it was highly unusual for a juror to call the court after hours.
“I am surprised that juror wasn’t also removed,” Reep said. “There is a jury foreman and a process in place if you want to talk to the judge, and we sort of expect that to go through that process. But here we made that call on our own, and certainly Judge Corrigan agreed with her once he was able to look at everything.”
The change shifted the racial makeup of the jury, but the gender breakdown remained the same. The final jury included seven white jurors, three black jurors and two Hispanic jurors.
The juror who was dismissed is an unemployed white man from Middleburg who served in the Navy. The judge spoke to him before he left court, encouraging him not to speak about the case but saying that it would be his choice if he did or not.
RELATED: Breakdown of Corrine Brown jury
The alternate juror who was seated is a Hispanic man who is a former student government officer at the University of North Florida and worked with UNF President John Delaney, who was one of just four witnesses to testify in Brown's defense.
The alternates were at the court during deliberations but were watching movies, Corrigan said.
Because the alternate juror was not sitting in on the previous 12 hours of deliberations, the jurors were instructed to set aside the previous discussion and begin the process again. When Corrigan asked the jurors if they could do that, they nodded agreement.
The alternates sat in on all of the court proceedings over the last two weeks as prosecutors tried to convince the jury that Brown funneled money from One Door into her personal accounts.
The prosecution called 41 witnesses, including FBI and IRS agents, former donors, well-respected community leaders and former Brown employees, to prove its allegations that Brown was greedy, had a “significant entitlement attitude,” and lived a lavish lifestyle using money stolen from One Door donors, who believed she was helping children with education.
Federal prosecutors said One Door raised $833,000 but gave only $1,200 in scholarships. During closing arguments, Assistant U.S. Attorney Eric Olshan told jurors that the real victims are the worthy students who could have gotten scholarships.
Over several days of testimony, prosecutors documented that at least $300,000 of One Door's funds paid for receptions, luxury boxes at sporting events and concerts, and trips and expenses for Brown and her associates.
Prosecutors also said Brown claimed on her taxes to have given four times more to charity ($28,000 a year) than she actually gave ($6,600 a year).
The government's star witnesses were One Door director Carla Wiley and Simmons, Brown's former chief of staff. Both took plea deals and agreed to testify against Brown.
The former lovers each admitted on the stand that they hatched a plan for One Door and stole the money that was supposed to go to scholarships for children.
Simmons said that Brown did, too, and that she ordered him to take cash and checks from One Door's account. On dozens of occasions, Simmons said, he was told to take out of One Door's account the maximum $800 from an ATM near his house and deposit hundreds of it in Brown's personal account. Sometimes, he kept some for himself.
According to the U.S. Attorney's Office, in one instance Simmons deposited $2,100 of One Door funds into Brown’s personal bank account the same day that Brown paid $2,057 to the IRS for taxes she owed.
Brown's attorney called only four witnesses, including Delaney, a former Jacksonville mayor, who testified as a character witness, telling the jury that Brown is “bluntly honest.” That statement set up Brown's own testimony, which legal analysts said was the real key to her defense, which seemed to hinge entirely on whether the jury chose to believe her over Simmons about what she knew.
The trial closed with two days of Brown on the stand, telling the jury the government's assessment of her financial history was “garbage” and that she “did not steal.”
Brown said that her inner circle turned on her, lied to her and all benefited from the deceit. At one point during cross-examination, she broke down crying and the jury had to be ushered from the room while she composed herself after crying out “they're trying to destroy my life."
Brown later told News4Jax as she awaited news from the jury that the last 15 months have been difficult for her and she's been grateful for the community's support and prayers.
“We're going through it together,” she said.
Prosecutors wrapped up their closing arguments Monday, calling on jurors to use their "common sense" as they deliberated Brown's fate.
"She exercised total control. No one told her no, but that didn't stop her, ladies and gentlemen, from using the power of her office to benefit herself,” Olshan said. “But you can say, 'No, enough,' because the defendant is guilty of each and every count in the indictment.”
Smith focused his closing argument on whether Simmons, a "self-admitted liar and thief with a criminal conviction" for assault against his girlfriend and "a vested interest in what happens" in Brown's trial, is someone the jury should trust.
"His handwriting is literally all over this case," Smith said. “He fooled One Door for Education, he fooled Carla Wiley, and he certainly fooled the investigators. I’m confident he’s not going to fool you.”
Copyright 2017 by WJXT News4Jax. The Associated Press contributed to this report. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.