JACKSONVILLE, Fla. - Former U.S. Rep. Corrine Brown was sentenced Monday to five years in federal prison for fraud and tax crimes that included raising about $800,000 for a sham charity.
Brown’s longtime chief of staff, Ronnie Simmons, was sentenced to 48 months in prison, and the charity’s founder, One Door for Education President Carla Wiley, was sentenced to 21 months.
U.S. District Judge Timothy Corrigan said he believed Brown used her position in Congress to achieve an “admirable record of service.” However, he also said she abused the trust of that office in order carry out a criminal conspiracy.
“This is a sad day for everyone,” Corrigan told Brown shortly after sentencing her. “I was impressed with all the outpouring of support for you, and I think it’s a tribute to all the work you’ve done over the years. That’s what makes this all the more tragic.”
In a long statement read before announcing the sentences, Corrigan said he believed Brown and Simmons shared an equal amount of culpability in the conspiracy, while Wiley shouldered the least amount.
Still, he noted the three each reaped the benefits of the illegal scheme, which he described as “especially shameless” since they took money that was supposed to provide educational opportunities for poor children and instead used it to bankroll a lavish lifestyle.
“This was a crime born out of entitlement and greed committed to ensure a lifestyle that was beyond their means,” Corrigan said. “Just think of the good that could have been done with that money if it would have been used for its intended purpose.”
Corrigan ordered Brown to report to prison no earlier than Jan. 8 to an as-yet undetermined prison, but allowed her to remain free until then.
Brown’s attorney, James Smith of Orlando, argued for probation and said Brown would appeal the sentence.
An appeal may not keep the 12-term congresswoman from going behind bars, however. Federal rules say Brown should begin serving her time while the appeal is pending unless the judge finds the defense is raising substantial issues that are likely to result in a new trial or a sentence shorter than the time he’ll need to decide the appeal.
Prosecutors asked Corrigan for at least five years in prison during a sentencing hearing held last month.
A pre-sentencing report from courthouse staff, which the judge isn’t required to follow, recommended a prison term between seven years, three months and nine years.
That term was based on sentencing guidelines for Brown’s convictions on 18 counts at her May trial. Jurors found her guilty of charges involving wire and mail fraud, conspiracy, concealing income and filing false tax returns.
Thirteen of the counts Brown was convicted of involved her fundraising efforts for One Door for Education, an organization she falsely described as being a tax-exempt nonprofit supporting projects to help children.
Wiley, who at one point dated Simmons, started One Door as a grassroots Virginia scholarship fund in honor of her mother. But the fund, which the Internal Revenue Service never recognized as a charity, was essentially inactive until Simmons suggested using it as a tool to receive — and spend — money Brown’s backers donated for receptions she held during yearly legislative conferences.
Between 2012 and the start of 2016, One Door received about $800,000 in donations, often from wealthy businesspeople who later said Brown personally approached them and told them One Door would use the money for kids’ causes.
In reality, jurors were told during Brown’s trial, only a tiny sliver of the money was spent on real charity, while more than $330,000 went into party-like events like outings to a Beyonce concert, a Jaguars-Redskins game in Washington and the invitational golf tournament One Door sponsored in Brown’s honor at TPC Sawgrass.
Prosecutors reminded Corrigan last month that another $26,860 in cash was moved from One Door’s bank account to Brown’s accounts, sometimes with bank cameras recording Simmons picking up or depositing the money. Simmons also hand-delivered some cash to Brown, prosecutors pointed out.
Simmons was indicted with Brown last year but took a plea deal and testified against his old boss of a quarter century. Wiley pleaded guilty to wire fraud conspiracy before the others were even charged.
Prosecutors’ argument that the fraud had been significant was underscored by their requests for Corrigan to order the three to collectively forfeit more than $650,000 the government labeled as proceeds from the crime.
In addition, under a separate part of the law involving repaying crime victims for their losses, prosecutors asked for Brown and Simmons to be ordered to make restitution payments totaling $452,000 to donors who gave to One Door. They also asked for an order making Brown pay $62,000 in restitution to the IRS for lying on her taxes, and an order for Simmons to pay another $91,000 in restitution for a charge involving him alone creating a ghost employee on Brown’s staff payroll.
If Corrigan’s sentence stands, Brown’s imprisonment will end a tumultuous but significant career in which Brown and two others, all elected in 1992, became the first African-Americans that Florida sent to Congress since the 19th century.
Both in Congress and in Florida’s Legislature for a decade before then, Brown seemed to relish a role as an advocate for poor and disenfranchised people. She also enjoyed touting herself as a politician who brought political bacon home to Jacksonville in the form of funding for big highway projects and important public buildings, including the federal courthouse where she was sentenced.
Her 24 years in Congress only ended after she was indicted, and Brown had pushed back hard against the idea that the criminal case would define her legacy.
“On my tombstone it will not say ‘felon, guilty,’” Brown said during an interview with Times-Union news partner First Coast News in April.