JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – Former U.S. Rep. Corrine Brown could spend the rest of her life in prison after being found guilty of taking money from a charity that was purported to be giving scholarships to poor students.
The former Democratic congresswoman was convicted Thursday on 18 counts in a federal corruption trial, the latest chapter in a stunning fall for a longtime Jacksonville political institution.
Brown, who was defeated for re-election last year after 24 years in the U.S. House, was found guilty on all but four counts for her part in a scheme that used sham education charity One Door for Education to finance personal expenses and events. U.S. District Judge Timothy J. Corrigan could hold a sentencing hearing for Brown, 70, within 90 days.
"Former Congresswoman Corrine Brown violated the public trust, the honor of her position, and the integrity of the American system of government when she abused one of the most powerful positions in the nation for her own personal gain," Acting Assistant Attorney General Kenneth Blanco said in a statement issued after the ruling. "She shamefully deprived needy children of hundreds of thousands of dollars that could have helped with their education and improved their opportunities for advancement, and she lied to the IRS and the American public about secret cash deposits into her personal bank accounts."
Brown attorney: Just first step
Brown's attorney, James Smith, told reporters outside the Jacksonville courtroom that Brown would ask for a new trial, though Smith declined to say on what grounds.
"She wants to let her supporters know that she is still strong and resolute," Smith said. "She still maintains her innocence, and she thanks everyone for their prayers and their support."
Smith pointed to the case of former Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell, whose conviction on corruption charges was later set aside by the U.S. Supreme Court because justices disagreed with the government's interpretation of an "official action."
"The American legal system has a number of levels, and this is just the first step," Smith said.
The case against Brown, though, had less to do with what she did as a congresswoman than what she did while she was in office. Brown was found guilty of counts charging her with conspiracy, concealing material facts on required financial disclosure forms, filing false tax returns and related charges.
The Thursday verdict came after prosecutors outlined a pattern of fraud by Brown and her top aide that included using hundreds of thousands of dollars from One Door for lavish parties, trips and shopping excursions.
According to the government, Brown -- along with former chief of staff Ronnie Simmons and Carla Wiley, both of whom pleaded guilty -- used One Door at least in part to finance their own expenses while working with other people to solicit more than $800,000 for the charity.
Congressman Al Lawson, who defeated Brown in a Democratic primary last year, was circumspect in a statement issued by his office following the verdict.
"My thoughts and prayers are with Rep. Brown, her family, and all those affected," he said. "I believe Jacksonville is a better place, because of her three decades of public service."
Brown left the courtroom quietly, with her head hanging slightly, a contrast to the flamboyant and often bombastic style she used for years in confrontations with political opponents and the media.
Even the last several days of her trial were filled with drama similar to what followed her throughout her political career.
A pair of emergency hearings called Wednesday and Thursday led to the dismissal of one juror and the revelation that another had nearly been contacted by a local media outlet in violation of the judge's order because of a snafu. The reporter, who was attempting to contact the dismissed juror, went to the home of a sitting juror. The dismissed juror had been excused after questions were raised by another on the panel about comments he made regarding Brown and a “higher power.”
After the juror change, Corrigan instructed the jury to throw out its previous 12 hours of discussions because the alternate juror hadn't been in on them. After spending nearly the same amount of time deliberating with the alternate – 11 hours – the jury returned with its verdicts, which were read as a stone-faced Brown listened in court.
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."
History in Congress
Brown's media silence was unusual, as she has often been a verbal pugilist, comparing an attempt to redraw her district to slavery and rhetorically asking reporters who inquired about the criminal charges whether they were pedophiles, as a way to point out that the allegations weren't yet proven.
But the 12-term, Jacksonville-based congresswoman was also a master of constituent services, using "Corrine Delivers" as a slogan to tout her ability to bring home projects and services to the voters who elected her. That ability helped her cultivate a political base that seemed unassailable.
She was also in many ways a historic figure, one of the first African-Americans elected to Congress from Florida since Reconstruction.
But ahead of the 2016 elections, her district was redrawn under a voter-approved ban on gerrymandering. The courts chose maps that swapped out one of her power bases in Orlando for parts of North Central and Northwest Florida, including a portion of Tallahassee, that barely knew her.
As Brown was fighting that change, the indictments were handed down, providing an even larger opening for Lawson, based in Tallahassee. She lost a three-way primary to Lawson by 8.6 points.
On Thursday, Smith said he was struck that some of the contributors to the charity would testify as part of the government's case, only to embrace Brown after leaving the stand.
"People cannot and will not forget all the good that she's done," Smith said. "Let's remember, no one's life is a snapshot. Our lives are films, and you have to look at each and every frame. And Corrine Brown is not going to be defined by what happened here today in this courtroom. She still has plenty of days left on this earth."
What is she facing now?
If his motions for a new trial 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."
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.”
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."
The News Service of Florida contributed to this report.