Lawyer: Ex-council members on trial for fraud had 'intimate' relationship

Opening statements, testimony begin in trial expected to last 2 weeks

By Jim Piggott - Reporter, Ashley Harding - Reporter

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. - A revelation was made during opening statements in federal court for the fraud trial of former Jacksonville City Council members Katrina Brown and Reggie Brown: A lawyer told the court the two defendants' relationship had become, "intimate at times."

The Browns, who are not related, face several charges stemming from $3 million in government loans and grants to Katrina Brown’s family barbecue sauce business. Prosecutors claim both Browns funneled thousands of dollars of that money for their personal use.

It has been nearly three years since the FBI raided the business. Just over a year ago the two Browns were removed from office. Last week, a jury was seated in the trial and testimony began Monday.

Assistant U.S. Attorney Tysen Duva said Katrina Brown committed fraud by withdrawing cash from both an ATM and at the bank, and “paid her rent at a high-rise condo in Jacksonville.” Duva added that Reggie Brown kept tens of thousands of dollars, and "used this account as a personal debit card.” 

Katrina Brown is acting as her own counsel after her court-appointed attorney withdrew from the case gave a seven-minute opening statement calling the trial a "search for justice, search for truth, search for facts."

Speaking about herself in the third person, Katrina Brown said she "did the best she could." She said the evidence would show the money was used legally to make the business successful and not for an extravagant lifestyle. 

Reggie Brown's attorney," Thomas Bell, said his client would take the stand in his own defense and tell the court how he became involved in Katrina Brown's family barbecue business, and as they became better acquainted, how he offered to help her in her ambitions. Bell said Reggie Brown's did not delve into the Browns' business financials, was not suspicious of Katrina Brown's motives and took the actions he did at her request.

One of the government's first witnesses, an FBI agent, testified how Katrina Brown's family got their lender to cut checks and how money flowed in and out of Reggie Brown's businesses.

Bell said Reggie Brown was not aware of what was going on with the finances of the barbecue business, and that his company was having financial problems when he agreed to work with Katrina Brown. 

Leaving court Monday, Katrina Brown described the process of representing herself "nerve-racking."

"First time there ... so I’m just trying to get a grasp on how the process works," she said. "Judge Howard was very fair today, so I appreciate the process of just being able to  have the opportunity to have my constitutional rights, to represent myself."

Court observers were watching closely as the trial opened to see how Katrina Brown handled representing herself.

Attorney Rhonda Peoples Waters, who is not associated with this case but was in the courtroom, said speaking of yourself in the third person may not play well with the jury.

"Here she is Katrina Brown saying Katrina Brown did something," Peoples Waters said. "You want to make sure you take advantage of you having this opportunity to speak directly to (the jury) and I think that point was missed."

People Waters also said any evidence presented showing that the two Browns had more than a business relationship could impact the jury's perception of what went on.

"That is certainly going to be important because that goes into what was a true motive with his actions," she," Peoples Waters said. 

The jury is made up of six men, six women and four alternates. The trial itself is expected to last two full weeks.

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