Former U.S. Rep. Corrine Brown was sentenced Monday to five years in federal prison for her role in a corruption conspiracy that involved stealing hundreds of thousands of dollars from a fake education charity for needy children.
Brown, 71, was allowed to go home after the sentence was announced and will be sent a letter in the mail telling her where and when to voluntarily report. Her sentence will begin no sooner than Jan. 8.
Brown, a Florida Democrat who was elected to Congress 12 times, will also serve three years of supervised release and must pay $250 a month in restitution once she's released from prison. She was ordered to pay a total of $515,166.86 in restitution to her victims, including $62,650.99 to the Internal Revenue Service.
U.S. District Judge Timothy Corrigan called it a sad day for everyone as he read Brown's sentence.
"This is a sad day for the community, and I was impressed by all the outpouring of support for you," Corrigan said, referring to hundreds of letters he said he received from the public. "That's a testament to what you did. That's what makes it all the more tragic and more sad. All I can do is to wish you well and your family well."
He agreed to recommend Brown serve her time in a prison as close to Jacksonville as possible, so she can be near her family.
Experts explained that most federal prisoners serve 85 percent of their sentences, if they show good behavior, and that the last six months of their prison time is served in a halfway house or home confinement to help with rehabilitation and reintegration to society.
If that holds true for Brown, she would spend three years and nine to 10 months in prison, then about six months in a halfway house or home confinement before beginning her three years of supervised release.
Brown will 'continue to fight'
Brown's attorney, James Smith, said after the sentence was announced that Brown will be filing an appeal within the next two weeks and that she will ask for a bond pending appeal, which would allow her to remain out of prison until her appeal has been exhausted.
A former federal prosecutor told News4Jax that Corrigan typically grants such bond requests, so Brown would likely remain a free woman for the next six to 12 months.
Brown will also continue to receive her congressional pension until the appeals process is complete, Smith said, adding that it could take several years.
"She hasn't given up hope. She intends to continue to fight," Smith said outside the federal courthouse. "This court does not have the last word considering the congresswoman's fate."
Smith said Brown's appeal will likely focus on why Corrigan refused to grant a mistrial after dismissing a juror who said he received guidance about Brown’s innocence from what he described as “the Holy Spirit.”
"I believe that the juror who was dismissed did not make statements which should have allowed the judge to disqualify him," Smith said. "All he simply said was that he was following the Holy Spirit beforehand, but I think the transcript clearly shows that he said that he could follow the law, the evidence and the instructions."
Smith said he has a lot of respect for Corrigan, but he thinks dismissing the juror was a mistake and that Brown will likely get a new trial.
He said he thinks Brown also has strong grounds for an appeal based on the evidence presented.
"If you look at the grounds that we submitted in our sentencing memo and the arguments that we made at the close of the case, I just don't think there was enough direct evidence to show that the congresswoman committed wire fraud and the other charges against her," Smith said.
He also plans to argue that the sentence imposed is unreasonable under the circumstances.
Despite the conviction and sentence, Smith said he didn't have any regrets about how he handled Brown's defense.
"Really, the only regret that I have is that, unfortunately, a statement that was made by a juror was misconstrued and that juror ended up being kicked off. I can't tell you how many people I've talked to who feel like there was something that was wrong with the process."
Smith said if the juror hadn't made the "Holy Spirit" remark, the outcome of Brown's trial might have been completely different.
"Our goal is just to get one. That's all we need. We try to keep the government from being able to get 12 unanimous jurors, and we had at least that one person," Smith said. "Whatever he said, I certainly wish that perhaps he hadn't said it, and we might be having a very different conversation."
Two local attorneys agreed that there are solid grounds for an appeal, but added that challenging Brown's conviction or sentence won't likely be an easy task.
Local criminal defense attorney Mitch Stone, who's not affiliated with Brown's case, said while a successful appeal may be a long shot, it’s still a real possibility.
"It’s very rare that the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals overturns a criminal conviction out of a federal district court," Stone said. "I’ve been practicing for close to 30 years and I could just think of a handful of times that that has happened."
He also pointed to the juror dismissed during trial.
"That certainly is grounds for an appeal, if there was a juror who was qualified to stay on the jury and was excused for a reason that essentially would have benefited Corrine Brown, then I think the appellate court has to look at that," Stone said.
Attorney Matthew Mueller, who specializes in white-collar defense, spoke to News4Jax by phone from Tampa. He agree an appeal is a necessary next step for Brown's legal team.
"A complicated white-collar case like this, there’s likely to be a number of evidentiary issues that arose during trial. Then, additionally, sentencing in these cases are complicated," Mueller said. "The appellate process is lengthy. You know, you’re typically ... going to get an answer before the four- to five-year period, so you certainly wouldn't want to leave anything on the field, so to speak."
'Shameless' fraud scheme
Brown was at the center of a scheme, described as "shameless" by Corrigan, that collected hundreds of thousands of dollars for One Door for Education, an unregistered charity -- funds that were used instead to pad a lavish lifestyle that far exceeded the lawmaker's means.
"She cast aside the very laws that she helped to enact," Corrigan wrote. "The rules, she decided, did not apply to her.”
Corrigan also seemed appalled that Brown claimed donations to the One Door charity on her taxes when she was, in fact, stealing from it: "Brazen barely describes it,” he said.
Near the end of the legal saga, which began 17 months ago with the 12-term congresswoman's career-ending indictment, a court officer recommended Brown serve up to nine years in prison for the fraud. Corrigan settled on a sentence of five years.
During the sentencing hearing, Corrigan vowed to impose a sufficient sentence that was not greater than necessary.
He said Monday that the evidence showed One Door donors placed special trust in Brown, who -- along with her co-conspirators -- traded on her status as a congresswoman to solicit donations for the fake charity.
In his 25-page sentencing order, Corrigan said the One Door for Education charity was “operated as a criminal enterprise” by Brown, her chief of staff, Ronnie Simmons, and the charity's founder, Carla Wiley.
“These defendants systematically looted One Door funds which otherwise would have been available to help deserving children,” Corrigan said in the sentencing order. “Just think of the good that could have been done with that money if it had been used for its proper purpose.”
Corrigan said Brown, one of the first black members of Congress from Florida since Reconstruction, was a “trailblazer who also has lifted up others.”
“But, having overcome all hurdles and risen to high office, Ms. Brown unfortunately succumbed to greed and an entitlement mentality,” Corrigan said.
In a blistering memo last month, prosecutors called for a stiff sentence. They cited Brown's abuse of position and lack of contrition, noting her claims that she is the victim of a racially motivated prosecution.
“After 21 years on the bench, I say with assurance that, faced with the same evidence of fraud and tax crimes that exists here, the FBI, the IRS, and the United States Attorney would have investigated and prosecuted regardless of the individual’s race," Corrigan wrote in his sentencing order.
Smith had lobbied for probation, pointing to Brown's years of service, age and health, among other factors.
In his sentencing order, Corrigan explained that he "seriously considered" honoring that request, but that in the end he didn't think that would be appropriate for her crimes.
"A sentence of probation for a member of Congress convicted of 18 counts involving mail, wire, and tax fraud would not be sufficient," Corrigan wrote. "While I do not relish the prospect of incarcerating Ms. Brown at her relatively advanced age, she has given the court no other option because she chose to commit these serious crimes at a relatively advanced age.”
Despite some experts saying Brown's sentence might have been longer because she refused to own up to her crimes, Smith defended his client's decision not to take responsibility.
"Since the beginning, the congresswoman has always maintained her innocence," Smith said. "I think, frankly, it would have looked inauthentic and less than genuine to say, 'Now that I've been convicted, let me take responsibility, let me express remorse.' You have to give her credit, I think, for maintaining her innocence all the way throughout, even knowing that it could -- and did -- result in a harsher sentence."
Charity 'slush fund'
At its core, the case was focused on One Door, a group billed as a charity for disadvantaged children that raised more than $800,000 over a four-year stretch. In fact, most of that money benefited Brown personally. Of the $833,000 raised, only $1,200 went toward scholarships.
The rest, including as much as $300,000, paid for things such as events and travel for Brown and those in her orbit, as well as dozens of cash deposits to her personal bank account and a range of frivolous expenses, like nearly $14,000 for Beyonce tickets and $15,000 for a suite at a Jaguars-Redskins game.
"This was a crime borne of entitlement and greed, committed to support a lifestyle that was beyond their lawful means," Corrigan wrote in his sentencing order. "In short, this was bad business."
A jury found Brown guilty on May 11 of 18 counts of federal mail, wire and tax fraud for soliciting donations for the fake charity, using that charity as a “slush fund” for herself and her associates, and lying on her taxes and congressional disclosure forms.
"It is incredibly disappointing that an elected official, who took an oath year after year to serve others, would exploit the needs of children and abuse the charitable hearts of constituents to advance her own personal and political agendas, and deliver them with virtually nothing," FBI Jacksonville Special Agent in Charge Charles P. Spencer said Monday in a prepared statement. " I am proud of the exceptional work of the special agents, analysts and support personnel who spent countless hours following the money trail in this case.”
The assistant special agent in charge of the IRS criminal investigation into the corruption case also released a statement Monday:
“For years Corrine Brown banked on the slogan ‘Corrine Delivers.' In this case, that’s precisely what she did: she banked entirely on herself when she delivered charitable donations to her own pockets,” Special Agent in Charge Shawn Batsch said. “Having built a lifelong reputation of helping others, she ultimately failed her constituents by fraudulently helping herself to contributions meant for underprivileged children. She also let them down by selfishly neglecting her duty to pay an honest tax.”
Brown did not act alone -- Simmons, acknowledged taking money as well, but noted in his testimony that he kept little for himself. Also entangled in the case was Wiley, Simmons' one-time girlfriend, who stole more than $100,000.
Both Simmons and Wiley accepted plea deals and testified against Brown. They were sentenced Monday to prison time, also.
Wiley was given 21 months in prison with three years of supervised release, and Simmons was sentenced to four years in prison with three years of supervised release.
Both will have to pay $250 a month in restitution.
The News Service of Florida contributed to this report.