Barnes opened by talking about Georgia’s segregationist past and highlighted Brooks’ history working alongside leaders of the civil rights movement.
“Tyrone has never stopped working to bring the American dream to those who thought it beyond their reach,” Barnes said. “His life is about serving, not about amassing great wealth.”
Brooks, holding his young grandson, stood next to Barnes but didn’t speak.
The indictment alleges Brooks solicited more than $1 million in contributions from the mid-1990s to 2012 to fight illiteracy in underserved communities and other causes, then used the money for personal and family expenses, ranging from home repairs to credit card bills.
The 67-year-old, who was first elected to the General Assembly in 1981, faces charges of mail fraud, wire fraud and filing false tax returns. He pleaded not guilty in front of a federal magistrate judge Wednesday.
Brooks never took a salary from the charitable organizations he worked for, but he was paid for expenses and used that money to pay his bills, said Barnes, who is representing Brooks for free.
“Bad bookkeeping, maybe, but not a crime,” Barnes said. “We have all seen politicians who have manipulated the system for their personal benefit, but that is apparently not a crime of substance, while a civil rights protester who is given money to pay expenses when he works full time in the struggle is a crime. I don’t think that is right.”
The government alleges that Brooks took money over 20 years that would amount to about $40,000 or $50,000 a year, Barnes said. If he had been paid that much as a salary, the government surely wouldn’t have a problem with that, Barnes said.
As for the allegations that Brooks filed fraudulent tax returns, Barnes said he wasn’t required to pay taxes on money that was for expenses.
Barnes said he has great respect for U.S. Attorney Sally Yates but wished she had handled the matter differently.
“I think the broad discretion that a U.S. attorney has in deciding whether to prosecute should have been exercised in this case by allowing this dispute to be handled as a civil tax matter rather than a criminal case seeking incarceration of somebody who has given his life fighting for the rights of others.”