JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – Gov. Rick Scott suspended the two Jacksonville City Council members late Friday, one day after the U.S. Attorney's Office unsealed an indictment detailing 38 mail and wire fraud charges against them.
The City Council members serving District 8 and District 10 appeared before a federal magistrate Thursday. Katrina Brown and Reginald Brown, unrelated except in overlapping business interests surrounding a failed barbecue sauce plant, were removed from their committee assignments Thursday by Council President Anna Lopez Brosche on Thursday, but she did not have the authority to remove them from office.
Scott's order states the suspensions are "in the best interests of the residents of the city of Jacksonville and the state of Florida." It specifies that the Browns were suspended without pay and "are prohibited from performing any official act, duty, or function of public office," during the period of suspension, effective immediately.
"We are fearful that the governor would take that action because, the best we can tell in his pattern ... that any public official that gets indicted get suspended," Katrina Brown's attorney, Curtis Fallgatter, told News4Jax. "He has not contacted us to ask for an explanation or rebuttal. As you know, we’ve given him detailed information through the U.S. Attorney’s Office, but the governor has not seen fit to inquire of us about the accuracy or the allegations. So it’s very disappointing, but it’s to be expected because it's how he conducts himself as a governor."
Saturday the Duval Democratic Party released a statement on the suspension.
"The federal indictments announced Thursday are deeply saddening. While the case proceeds, we hope our judicial process affords a fair, impartial, and speedy trial for all parties involved. With the Governor's arbitrary decision to suspend the duly elected Council Members of Districts 8 & 10, he has defied his own precedent, by choosing to ignore the grand jury suspension referral of former Public Defender Matt Shirk when it came before his desk. We hope he will follow his own precedent-setting decision and allow the voters to choose their representatives. The citizens in those districts have consistently shown they have no confidence in candidate Scott's decision making. He shouldn't get to choose their elected representatives with a tainted process decided through backroom deals."
Jacksonville Mayor Lenny Curry said he's ready to move forward.
"The governor has exercised his authority. We will work with his office on plans to engage the community in identifying next steps," Curry said in a statement.
City Council President Anna Lopez-Brosche spoke to News4Jax about the council's future and making sure the constituents are represented.
“I'm really concerned making sure the District 8 and District 10 and making sure that they have the representation they need," Lopez-Brosche said. "There's a lot of need in the community and I want to make sure they are being served.”
Duval County Supervisor of Elections Mike Hogan told News4Jax that he believes the governor would appoint people to fill the seats for the time that the Browns remain under federal indictment or their terms end, June 30, 2019.
Prior to the federal indictment, multiple candidates had notified the elections office of their intentions to run for the two seats in next March's city election.
It's happened before
There is precedent for an indicted Council member's removal. In 2010, City Councilman John Meserve, the former mayor of Atlantic Beach, was caught in a scheme in which he sold property in Mayport and profited from it even though he did not have the required real estate license to handle the transaction.
Former State attorney Angela Corey said because Meserve was a public official was making decisions about the future of Mayport and other land development projects while making this deal, he needed to be removed.
"As a public official he used his role for private gain," Corey said at the time.
Then-Gov. Charlie Crist suspended Meserve and appointed Art Graham to the City Councl seat.
Meserve later got his day in court and pleaded no contest to the charge. He was sentenced to probation and never returned to the council.
Neither Brown was at their City Council offices Friday. The switchboard took many calls from residents asking that they be removed, but that's in the state's hands.
"I have I have exercised the authority that I have to remove council members Brown and Brown from their committee assignments and replace them on the committees with other council members. That’s the only authority I have, and that’s the only authority City Council has," Brosche said.
The city’s General Counsel Jason Gabriel agreed.
"Indicted Council members remain on Council will all rights and powers, including the right to participate in Council meetings. Only the governor of Florida has the power to suspend an indicted City Council member," Gabriel wrote in a memo to Brosche issued late Thursday.
The U.S. Attorney's Office claims Katrina Brown and Reggie Brown created shell companies to move money from a $2.6 million Small Business Association loan, and to more than $500,000 in city grants and loans around -- and profit from it.
Defense attorneys argued that the business that received public financing simply failed and there was no fraud.
Both remain free, with a hearing scheduled for June 14.