Rep. Corrine Brown is involved in two existential battles: a fight against 22 federal counts related to her allegedly fraudulent charity One Door for Education. And a fight for re-election in a district that has been radically redrawn since her last bid for re-election.
Brown is fighting a two-front war. And, unfortunately for her, the electoral battle and the legal battle have considerable overlap.
The Tallahassee Democrat editorial board met with Brown and other Congressional District 5 Democrats, seeking to represent the district that now sprawls west past 25 prisons and through half that many counties along Interstate 10 instead of southwest along the St. Johns River.
The highlight of an otherwise dull event happened early on, when her federal trial came up.
Brown, introducing herself to a second population center in her newly remapped district, was compelled to explain her description of the charges against her as a “witch hunt.”
“I’m sorry that this is your first question,” Brown said. “Proverbs said it sounds good until you are cross-examined.”
Brown said that though the U.S. attorney general and the president are black, “career prosecutors” moved the case through without their knowledge.
“It was my understanding that [Loretta Lynch] found out the Friday before” the indictment, Brown said.
“To be indicted just after qualifying,” Brown said, is a “witch hunt.”
Brown cited 60 interns, 1,000 computers distributed in the district, and scholarships as examples of her good works.
Brown “came here in hopes that we would talk about issues,” and said “you need to understand that I’m not going to answer any questions about the indictment.”
However, the questions came.
One: What happened to the $800,000 donated to One Door for Education?
“Here I brought the Florida Star [an African-American weekly newspaper based in Jacksonville] because I notice the regular media has a problem doing some research,” Brown said.
“I gave 22 scholarships — Corrine Brown along with the Chinese government — I sent 22 kids to China last summer,” Brown added, pointing that out in the paper.
“I haven’t read that anywhere.”
“On the other side … 60 kids who got CBC [Congressional Black Caucus] Scholarships … along with a bunch of other kids who I gave scholarships to,” Brown continued.
Of One Door for Education, Brown said “I’m not on the board … and I’m not an officer in the organization … it’s very discouraging that the media goes along with the witch hunt from the prosecutors without doing any research. To act like I haven’t done my job is unacceptable,” Brown said as Al Lawson and L.J. Holloway looked on.
“Don’t ask me about something I had no control over,” Brown said.
Rep. Brown made similar claims in response to questions from FloridaPolitics.com earlier this week.
Holloway, when asked to comment, said “we should allow the criminal justice system to take place,” adding that the feds typically have a 98.2 percent conviction rate.
Tallahassee-based Lawson said politicians “live in a fishbowl,” and that “whenever there’s an allegation, we have to answer those allegations.”
“You owe it to the people of this district to let them know … it’s not about what you’ve done, or where you sent people, it’s about this particular allegation that’s placed on someone who’s running for office,” Lawson said.
“The people have the right to know, because they’re the taxpayers, and they’re paying us to represent them,” Lawson said.
Brown said “ask me about funds I raised, where the money went,” as opposed to “funds that someone else raised.”
Brown, who has a trial appearance set for Tuesday, has her current defense team looking to secure early disclosure of Brady material — information and evidence material to the case — against Brown and her co-defendant and chief of staff, Ronnie Simmons.
The prosecution, in a Thursday filing, said this was unnecessary given the 77,700 pages of discovery provided, which in fact caused Brown and Simmons to request and receive a one-month continuance of the trial to accommodate the processing of discovery materials.
The prosecution contends “the Government has significantly expanded its discovery productions beyond Federal Rule of Criminal Procedure 16 … Brown cannot point to any legal reason why the Government’s production in this case and this Court’s longstanding and well-established discovery procedures set forth in the Standing Order in any way prejudice her.”
The court has yet to rule on early disclosure of Brady material.
Another issue Brown has is the uncertainty of her representation.
Brown has been represented by William Sheppard and Betsy White, but as the prosecution noted in its Thursday response to Brown’s call for the Brady materials, it is uncertain whether their firm will represent the congresswoman after Tuesday’s status conference.
And still another issue Brown has is the investigation not just of her, Simmons, and One Door’s former head Carla Wiley, but of people in Brown’s larger network.
From political allies and consultants to accountants and preachers, the paper trail and the connections between parties are being scrutinized and will be scrutinized further.
In the context of the federal charges, what was notable from Brown’s statements to the Tallahassee Democrat Thursday was the laying of groundwork for reasonable doubt.
Brown noted she has been personally charitable, while contending she does not have responsibility for One Door because she is neither on the board nor an officer is telling.
If Brown is not accountable, it raises the question of who is. Does ultimate responsibility rest with Wiley? With Simmons?
Brown, slated for a forum in Baker County Saturday, likely will take tough questions from a largely Republican crowd. How will she handle the scrutiny from people who don’t know anything about her but the caricature?