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Will Marco Rubio and Patrick Murphy debate in Jacksonville?

The Jacksonville University Public Policy Institute, in conjunction with WJXT-TV, has hosted a number of meaningful debates in the last couple of years.

Candidates for mayor and sheriff have debated at the private university, as have candidates for state attorney and the United States Congress.

Now, the non-partisan Public Policy Institute wants the two major party candidates for the United States Senate to debate.

So far, one of them (Marco Rubio) has confirmed a willingness to debate. And the Public Policy Institute has indicated a willingness to set a date that works for both campaigns.

PPI director Rick Mullaney extended an invitation to Rubio and Rep. Patrick Murphy to a televised debate before the election.

Mullaney, a veteran of politics himself, understands the nature of political scheduling, and he’s said that the broadcast partners would be “flexible” on the date.

Murphy, thus far, has not responded to the invitation, but Mullaney is “hopeful” that response will come and will be affirmative.

We have reached out to the Murphy campaign for status on this also.

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It is worth noting that, at least in terms of local and regional races, debates held at Jacksonville University have shifted electoral narratives.

The pivotal third debate between Lenny Curry and Alvin Brown certainly contributed to a changing of the guard in Jacksonville’s City Hall.

And the sole televised debate between Corrine Brown and Al Lawson saw the incumbent congresswoman become unhinged, comparing the federal charges against her to unfounded claims of sexual deviance among the media.

Rubio and Murphy, both careful and polished public speakers, undoubtedly would avoid such pyrotechnics.

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That being said, a debate between these candidates would certainly help to educate Northeast Florida voters on these two candidates.

Rubio, who had strong support among Jacksonville’s establishment during his campaign for United States President, is a known quantity regionally.

Murphy has had, thus far, less exposure in Northeast Florida.

This debate could change that.

If it happens.

Check back for updates on this developing story.

Al Lawson’s financial disclosure shows lobbying pays well

It looks quite possible that Democrat Al Lawson, who dispatched incumbent Corrine Brown in the primary in Congressional District 5, will win the election against Republican Glo Smith in the end.

With that in mind, a review of Lawson’s financial disclosure form shows if Lawson does go to Washington, he’s going to lose out on a number of lobbying and consulting gigs that pay more than $5,000 a year.

Lawson consults for SGS Technologic in Jacksonville, Florida State University, Ballard Partners, and Citiworks.

The candidate lobbies, meanwhile, for Excellence in Education, Charter Schools USA, Accolite (an Indian company that handles IT needs for healthcare companies), and the Leon and Gadsden County boards of county commissioners.

Beyond that money, Lawson made over $200,000 last year, the bulk of it from commission sales related to health care companies.

This year, he made somewhat over $75,000 as of the May 19 filing.

Beyond those gigs, Lawson has interests in a number of rental properties — both commercial and residential.

For each of his three properties, he had derived $5,001 to $15,000 of income up until May.

Lawson seems to be a careful investor, and his assets dwarf his liabilities.

He owed, as of May, under $15,000 on his mortgage, and had two lines of credit: one with Bank of America, between $15,001 and $50,000; and a credit card with a balance between $10,000 and $15,000.

Meanwhile, Glo Smith’s financial disclosure has not been filed for 2016 yet; she says she will have it in later Monday.

‘Woman of integrity’ Corrine Brown seeks ‘legal defense’ funds

Rep. Corrine Brown has a message for her supporters: send money now!

To that end, a new website reflects the new operational reality for the 23-year congresswoman, whose last election likely was the Aug. 30 primary she lost to Al Lawson in Florida’s 5th Congressional District.

The Corrine Brown Legal Defense Trust is “under construction,” a cyberspace synecdoche for her defense efforts themselves, which have exhausted the efforts of three sets of lawyers, and now are being handled by Orlando barrister James Smith, who is adamant the case will not be plea bargained, but instead will go to trial.

“They redrew my district in order to make it harder for me to be re-elected. Then sadly, on July 8, 2016, I was falsely accused by the federal government. It is not a coincidence that these charges were filed immediately prior to my Aug. 30 Primary Election, which I ultimately lost. I am a woman of integrity and I categorically deny the charges,” Brown writes.

“I am fighting the Department of Justice, which has unlimited resources. They have smeared my good name. They are trying to take my freedom. I am asking for your help to fight these false charges. On this website, you can make a donation to my legal defense fund. Any contribution would be greatly appreciated,” Brown added.

Unlike with campaigns, there is no cap on “legal defense” contributions.

Offered on the page: a testimonial to Brown’s help sending 22 children to China in 2015. It’s notable that the trip doesn’t seem to have had anything to do with One Door for Education, the charity that prosecutors say was a slush fund for Rep. Brown and her chief of staff, Ronnie Simmons.

In 2015, the last year for which financial disclosure data has been filed for Brown, she took in $65,500 for her legal defense fund.

The next court date for Brown and Simmons’ defense lawyers is Oct. 25, although neither defendant is required to be present.

Status conference set for Oct. 25 in Corrine Brown, Ronnie Simmons trial

Rep. Corrine Brown and her chief of staff, Ronnie Simmons, are staring down 24 counts for fraud and misrepresentation related to the One Door for Education charity.

And now, they are staring down a status conference, slated for Oct. 25 at 2 p.m. at Jacksonville’s federal courthouse.

Neither Brown nor Simmons have to attend.

Counsel for the defendants and prosecutors have already agreed to push the trial back to February 2017, with defense counsel noting the voluminous discovery burden — encompassing 77,000 pages of documents.

While defense lawyers agree on the proposed trial commencement term, there may be divergence on strategy.

Simmons’ lawyer, Anthony Suarez, has noted the very good likelihood of a plea deal being the final resolution of the case.

Brown’s lawyer, James Smith, is opposed to such a plea deal.

More will be learned Oct. 25, if not before then, in a trial that has been flush with procedural moves but bereft of meaningful progress since the July 6 indictment was served.

Coherence emerges in Corrine Brown’s defense strategy?

At long last, a coherent defense strategy in the One Door for Education case — one that sees Rep. Corrine Brown and her chief of staff, Ronnie Simmons, as co-defendants — is taking shape.

Brown and Simmons both — as has been amply documented — have had difficulties retaining counsel in their case, which involves 24 counts of allegations that the One Door charity was a slush fund for Simmons and Brown, rather than a legitimate charitable endeavor, with counts relative to fraud, misrepresentation, failure to disclose earnings, and so on.

Demonstrated last week was, at long last, a commitment to a strategy to push the case forward, a commitment that never was officially in doubt in the courtroom of Judge James Klindt, but was doubted by some outside that space.

Evidence of the strategy and the continued harmony of the alleged co-conspirators was presented last week, via a joint filing signed by defense and prosecution attorneys that seeks to set meaningful deadlines in the case after they were “vacated” as the defendants “attempted to secure legal representation.”

With legal representation secured, and with the burden of discovery cited by Brown’s lawyer James Smith, the desire was to move the trial into the February trial term (which was what Suarez had told media he wanted, even while Smith suggested a springtime date would be more ideal).

If the February schedule is adopted by the court, the pre-trial action in the case would happen this fall.

All discovery and dispositive motions would be completed by the end of October, with motion hearings completed by early December 2016.

One of the reasons for the extended timeframe of this case cited in the filing: “the number of witnesses” set to testify, “many of those traveling from outside the Middle District of Florida.”

Conceptually, a February trial date will help facilitate such travel.

Despite the delayed trial (compared to early expectations the trial could take place during election season, a concern rendered moot in light of the electoral result Aug. 30), there are still factors to watch going forward.

One such: the divergence in strategies between Brown and Simmons’ defense lawyers.

Smith, on behalf of Brown, adamantly stated there would not be a plea deal after his client’s hearing last week.

Suarez, on behalf of Simmons, cheerfully opined that 95 percent of all cases are settled with plea deals.

There also, in terms of Smith’s defense of Brown, is another factor worth watching: “Volunteer” lawyer on Team Corrine, Natalie Jackson, recently suspended by the Florida Bar and facing money troubles, including a foreclosure auction later this month.

Speculation will, no doubt, swirl about the trial in the weeks ahead.

However, there is a chance Brown’s last few months in office, though pre-trial motions and such will be worth watching, may be surprisingly drama-free.

Financial troubles mount for ‘volunteer’ lawyer linked to Corrine Brown defense

In the federal courthouse WednesdayNatalie Jackson was responsible for getting the business cards of every media member and generally letting the press know the legal team representing Rep. Corrine Brown was accessible and willing to talk about the case.

Jackson was represented as a colleague of James Smith, the sole attorney of record in the Brown case, but she was not attorney of record … which raised questions among the media as to what her exact role was at the defense table.

It seems some answers surfaced between Wednesday’s court date and Thursday.

News 4 Jax reports that Jackson was recently suspended by The Florida Bar. Her infraction?

In May, Jackson was “suspended in connection with financial mismanagement of a trust fund for clients.”

That financial mismanagement, the report claims, resulted from overdrafts of the trust fund.

From there, an investigation revealed flawed record keeping, including transaction receipts, and overdrafts that extended as high as $2,406 at one point.

Jackson is no longer suspended by The Florida Bar.

However, there will be those who note, with some sense of irony, a lawyer involved in a case predicated on flawed record keeping has her own history on that front.

For her part, Jackson represents herself as a volunteer on the case.

Jackson’s issues with the Bar are not her only worries, however.

FloridaPolitics.com has learned Jackson has had tax troubles dating back to 2007, with liens totaling $39,254.

As well, a foreclosure auction on her home in Orlando is possible later this month.

Unless Jackson pays up $474,175.72 by Sept. 26, her home will be auctioned to the highest bidder.

This would, for some, raise questions as to why she’s doing volunteer work when she’s a half-million dollars in the red.

James Smith is latest Corrine Brown lawyer; trial likely delayed until 2017

The big reveal from Wednesday’s hearing for Corrine Brown included a new defense lawyer, and likely a new trial date.

Despite the fact that Congresswoman Brown’s political career appears to be over, she and key exponents of her political machine still have a show to put on in federal court.

To get there, however, hurdles have to be hopped.

Among those was who will represent the congresswoman in court?

Brown’s Chief of Staff Ronnie Simmons was allowed to keep his lawyer as of Wednesday morning. This, despite judicial and prosecutorial protestations that his Orlando barrister had a conflict of representation that possibly could preclude effective representation.

A question still remained. Who would represent Rep. Brown in the One Door for Education trial? Her previous attorneys walked off the case, citing an unworkable atmosphere of “distrust.”

On Wednesday, shortly before her 3 p.m. hearing, a notice of appearance was filed for James Smith, an Orlando attorney.

Smith, a former Army JAG lawyer and FAMU law professor, has almost seven years of experience as a federal public defender.

Smith confirmed he is on this case for the duration.

The hearing Wednesday addressed various housekeeping matters, including disclosure of Brady materials and a protective order from July.

The big question: would the trial start as scheduled in November?

Simmons’ attorney, said Judge James Klindt, wanted to push the trial back to the first quarter of 2017.

“I wouldn’t take it off the November calendar,” Klindt said, but added that a status conference Oct. 11 at 2 p.m. might be the occasion for pushing the trial back as the co-defendant’s lawyer wanted.

Smith stated he preferred a trial in the first quarter of 2017 — then after the hearing amended that, saying “sometime in early spring.”

The prosecution said, meanwhile, there was a “joint desire” for a February commencement.

After the hearing, material differences between the approaches of Smith on behalf of Brown and Anthony Suarez on behalf of Simmons were revealed almost instantly.

One major one: Suarez said “95 percent” of cases end in plea deals, implying that One Door for Education may end up that way. On the other hand, Smith flatly said “there’s not going to be a plea deal in this case.”

Another important one: while Suarez left open the possibility his client may be interested in a plea, Smith held firm.

“We emphatically deny all the charges,” Smith said, adding that “the timing of these charges influenced the election.”

Worth watching are further divergences between Brown and Simmons, which could become more apparent as their professional relationship (as congresswoman and chief of staff) runs its course by January.

Stakes are high for the co-defendants, who face 22 and 18 counts respectively of a total 24.

Brown faces a possible 357 years in prison and $4.8 million fine if all counts are found valid.

For Simmons, it would be as many as 355 years and $4.75 million, if guilty of all counts.

For now, the trial is left on the November calendar.

Ronnie Simmons’ lawyer sees ‘some weak spots’ in One Door for Education prosecution

There is a lot of uncertainty about the One Door for Education case, in which Rep. Corrine Brown and her chief of staff, Ronnie Simmons, are co-defendants.

As of Wednesday afternoon, it is still uncertain whether or not Brown has a lawyer.

That will be resolved, theoretically, by 3 p.m.

And it is still uncertain when this case, which now involves a sitting congresswoman without a campaign, will go to trial.

One thing is for sure, however; co-defendant Simmons does in fact have an attorney.

Overcoming objections posed by the prosecution and the judge, Simmons was allowed to retain Orlando barrister Anthony Suarez, in spite of Suarez having represented, on a “transactional” basis, one of the grand jury witnesses in this case: Orlando consultant/lobbyist LaVern Kelly.

Kelly essentially filled a role that Von Alexander did in Jacksonville for Rep. Brown, as a conduit between the congresswoman and her donor base.

After Wednesday’s hearing, Suarez talked with Jacksonville media about where he sees this case, including fielding questions on the likelihood of Simmons turning on his boss, Simmons’ beliefs of his own guilt or innocence in this matter, and why he doesn’t believe he can represent Simmons and Brown in tandem.

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Regarding the alleged conflict, Suarez had the following to say.

“I know the testimony [from Kelly]. I know what she said. If there had been a conflict,” Suarez said, “I wouldn’t have taken the case.”

While the charges his client faces — 18 counts unique to him, with a potential penalty of well over three centuries in prison if all are upheld in court — are “very serious,” Suarez wonders “do they have all the facts?”

Though most observers still envision the theatrics of a jury trial, Suarez notes that “95 percent” of cases — local, state, and federal — are “settled by plea.”

Suarez doesn’t know if this will be one yet or not, as 77,000 pages of “discovery is voluminous.”

“There are always possibilities for a plea deal,” Suarez said.

However, less possible: Simmons turning on Brown.

“I don’t see that as a possibility.”

Also an increasingly remote possibility is a trial anytime soon in this case.

Suarez’s best guess: February, which if that were the case, would push the trial into the next CD 5 congressperson’s term.

Simmons has told Suarez that he is innocent, and for his part, Suarez is confident.

“I know where the case is going to go,” Suarez said, and there are some “weak spots in the case” from the prosecutors.

Corrine Brown COS disregards counsel conflict, retains Anthony Suarez

The world of political influence is a small one, and a conflict in Congresswoman Corrine Brown‘s sphere was brought to light Wednesday in court.

This particular conflict illustrated the intersection of Brown’s charitable and political endeavors, providing further evidence of the blurred lines between the two relative to the federal “One Door for Education” trial.

The end result: the lawyer for Brown’s Chief of Staff Elias “Ronnie” Simmons will be retained, despite the fact that he represented a prosecution witness, an Orlando lobbyist/consultant by the name of Lavern Kelly.

Kelly has some history with Rep. Brown, having “actively been a consultant in all of Congresswoman Corrine Brown Successful Campaigns for Congress over the last 20 years. In 2010 due to Lavern Kelly efforts as general consultant the Congresswoman successfully won 90 percent of the votes in three counties [sic],” according to her National Coalition of Black Women online biography.

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Simmons, chief of staff for and co-defendant with Rep. Brown, was in federal court in front of Judge James Klindt Wednesday morning, hours before Brown’s own hearing in the same courtroom.

The reason? A potential conflict regarding Simmons’ lawyer.

Simmons’ lawyer, Anthony Suarez, had previously represented Kelly of KNA Services, a conflict that precluded Suarez from cross-examining her, said prosecutors.

Suarez’s former client would, in fact, be a witness at trial, the prosecution confirmed Wednesday morning.

Suarez called Kelly a friend, but said the prior representation was a “transactional relationship” that presented no conflict for him.

Simmons’ strong preference — despite objections of the prosecution and extensive caveats from Judge Klindt — was to keep Suarez as his counsel.

Klindt affirmed prosecution’s contention that the prior relationship of witness Kelly and attorney Suarez did meet the threshold of conflict of interest, with “inconsistent interests” between the her and the defendant being a distinct possibility.

Assistant U.S. Attorney A. Tysen Duva noted the confusion last month regarding the status of Simmons’ representation, describing Kelly as a “consultant/lobbyist,” who had a longstanding relationship with Brown and her office.

Simmons had “emailed communications” with Kelly, who would “push out information about events or purported fundraisers” in the Orlando market to donors and the like, Duva said.

“It seemed like the communications were at the behest of Congresswoman Brown,” Duva said, with Simmons as a conduit for “information” from Brown to donors.

Kelly, said Duva, was to testify that Simmons had used a particular AOL email address for communications, with more focus on her own relationship with Rep. Brown.

“There were times when this individual sort of assisted donors [to] One Door for Education,” Duva said, with Simmons providing guidance for the routing of funds.

Despite Duva’s cautions and Klindt’s qualms, Suarez was undeterred.

“I do not foresee from a legal point of view that there is anything that would impede my ability to be an aggressive advocate,” Suarez said.

Suarez has known Kelly for “many many many years,” and considers her a friend, he said.

Kelly’s firm has a long history in Orlando.

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Judge Klindt explained how attorney-client privilege in his representation of Kelly came into play, requiring a “continuing obligation of loyalty” to her, and potentially forcing cross-examination of this client.

“Suarez’s zeal to represent your interests,” Klindt told Simmons, could be compromised.

“He may not want to make her look like a liar, when making her look like a liar would help you,” Klindt said, before outlining other potential impacts of conflict, including a plea deal.

Klindt also suggested a potential defense Simmons could use is lack of knowledge of the operations of One Door, a defense Kelly could undermine, but without cross-examination it could stick.

As well, Klindt suggested that a jury, were it to dislike Kelly, could feel the same about Simmons.

None of this deterred Simmons.

“I don’t see it being a problem whatsoever,” the defendant said, affirming such a desire even at the potential expense of less than “effective counsel” and comparing this situation to “going into a heavyweight bout with one arm tied behind your back.”

Klindt wouldn’t take yes for an answer, continuing to outline potential impacts of the conflict … including Simmons being “forever barred” from objecting retroactively to counsel conflicts.

After more discussion, Duva relented, satisfied all potential impacts of conflict had been discussed.

Then, after a recess, Klindt brought up more potentially adverse scenarios for Simmons’ defense.

Among them: potential communications about “where donations should be sent,” which could have included Simmons’ home address.

This “testimony could potentially be more damaging to you,” Klindt said to Simmons.

And the potential admissibility of “statements of co-conspirators” could come into play also, Klindt said, outlining how that could impact Simmons’ defense.

Unmoved by these hypothetical scenarios, Simmons reaffirmed his desire for Suarez to defend him, even at the expense of potentially being found guilty and being barred from using such as a grounds for appeal.

A waiver of potential conflict was presented to Simmons and he signed it in open court.

Given the “limited nature of the testimony of Ms. Kelly,” and the “very short period of time Suarez represented this witness,” and a preponderance of other corollary factors along these lines, Klindt agreed to Simmons’ request to keep Suarez as his attorney.

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Simmons and Brown face between them 24 counts related to One Door for Education, a charity which used Brown’s likeness and endorsement to secure donations that were, at the very least, not dispersed under its own name.

The congresswoman from Florida’s 5th Congressional District, along with her chief of staff, face a combined 24 charges, enumerated in a 46-page indictment back in July.

Brown faces a possible 357 years in prison and $4.8 million fine if all counts applicable to her are found valid.

For Simmons, it would be as many as 355 years and $4.75 million, if guilty of all counts applicable to him.

The estimated restitution for Brown would be $833,000 — plus $63,000 in tax — roughly $897,000. For Simmons, the number would be over $1.2 million.

Brown will be in court at 3 p.m. Wednesday to address her own lack of counsel, one created when Orlando attorneys Mark NeJame and David Haas withdrew from her case.

 

Two counsel hearings loom Wednesday in Corrine Brown One Door for Education case

U.S. Rep. Corrine Brown and Ronnie Simmons, her chief of staff, will be at the federal courthouse in Jacksonville Wednesday for separate hearings regarding their counsel — or lack thereof — in the blockbuster One Door for Education case.

Simmons’ lawyer, Anthony Suarez, may have a conflict that precludes him from representing Simmons. In a different matter, Suarez represented a prosecution witness, and the feds assert this would disqualify the Orlando barrister from cross-examination.

Simmons’ hearing is slated for 10 a.m. on Wednesday.

Brown, meanwhile, lost her third set of lawyers days before she lost her primary.

Though Mark NeJame, the lead of the last firm to abandon the defense of the embattled congresswoman, took great pains to represent the quickly dissolved legal relationship as an amicable parting of the ways, the court filing preceding NeJame leaving the case told a different story.

“The relationship between the undersigned and Corrine Brown has quickly deteriorated to the point of having irreconcilable differences. The nature of these communications are confidential, but suffice to say, irreconcilable differences exist and the relationship is strained where effective representation is compromised,” wrote David Haas, who was representing Brown, along with NeJame.

“As a result, it has created an atmosphere of hostility and distrust not conducive to further representation. Furthermore, a material and significant difference of opinion exists as to case management and the needs of counsel to properly prepare with the client and the client’s availability,” Haas added.

NeJame and Haas claimed last month that they were helping Brown get new lawyers, as part of what the congresswoman has called a “lean, mean” team.

Brown will be in court at 3 p.m. Wednesday.

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