Thursday saw Corrine Brown make her case for sentence leniency in Jacksonville’s federal courthouse, ahead of a Dec. 4 sentencing date.
Brown, convicted of 18 felony counts in the One Door for Education fraud case this year, saw her co-conspirators turn on her in the trial; their “substantial cooperation” may earn them shorter prison stretches.
Prosecutors insist on Brown getting prison time.
However, Brown was supported by emotional testimony, including Rep. Sheila Jackson-Lee, Marissa Alexander and more, along with an emotional apology for letting the three-year One Door scam happen under her nose.
Brown’s own sentencing memo cited her lack of criminal history, her history of public service, and the unlikeliness of recidivism as mitigating factors, noting that there was no “statutory requirement” that she be sent to prison.
Beyond a cavalcade of character witnesses on hand, Brown also had epistolary support from those who have known her for decades: approximately 100 letters, “99 percent” of which were in support of Corrine Brown — and all of them were read, said Judge Timothy Corrigan.
Objections: Brown’s attorney, James W. Smith III, kicked off the hearing with objections to the sentencing guidelines, given that Brown continues to maintain her innocence. Among his objections: the calculated loss amount, which Smith said was just an inflated estimate, with money spent on events ($330,000) erroneously added to push the level above $550,000.
“The money solicited for events was actually used for events,” Smith said, speaking of the golf tournament and other fundraising events under One Door auspices. “Brown told the donors that the money would be used for various events … every event did in fact take place.”
Smith also countered the government’s assertion that Brown lied on the stand, and had letters produced in support of phony charitable deductions.
The government, meanwhile, objected that the loss totals were too low, noting that a $10,000 check for a vanity magazine publication was left out of calculations, pushing the number to $644,000.
The government’s case: U.S. Attorney A. Tysen Duva began his presentation, distilling the government’s case against Brown into roughly half an hour.
Duva argued that there was “absolutely no intention ever to raise money for scholarships” through the various events over the three years of her raising money for One Door, despite claiming such to donors — a “who’s who of the business community.”
Duva also said that Brown, Carla Wiley, and Ronnie Simmons taking money donated for events represented a concerted effort to expropriate donor cash for personal spending, passing the “reasonable foreseeability” threshold.
While there were things that each defendant did that the others didn’t know about, Duva contended that the preponderance of evidence supported the evidence of conspiracy.
Duva also argued that Brown’s “flat denial of criminal conduct” and “fabricated” attempts to pin the blame on Simmons “simply wasn’t credible and was a lie,” supporting the claim of perjury.
“The lies came both on direct and cross examination,” Duva asserted. “Corrine Brown committed crimes on that witness stand. She lied for hours on end.”
Duva outlined specific lies about checks and disbursements, the role of hired assistant Von Alexander and others in her employ, and the probity of the FBI and IRS — narrative tropes that are familiar to those who followed this case closely earlier this year.
Duva also contended that Brown exploited her position of “public trust,” scuttling relationships of long-standing to exploit donors’ “benevolent bent for education” — including donors who wouldn’t have otherwise cut checks.
“She knew where to hit ’em, how to hit ’em, and she did it time and time again,” Duva argued.
Finally, Duva raised objections to criticisms raised by Brown of the unfairness of the trial and the justice system as “totally ludicrous … nonsense.”
“She’ll probably go out today and say something. She can’t help herself. That’s who she is,” Duva said.
Duva went on to note that Brown cast aspersions on FBI investigators for spending time on her instead of stopping Omar Mateen, the man who committed the Orlando Pulse massacre, calling them ludicrous — and also linking them into a larger narrative designed to destroy the credibility of investigators.
Duva took exception to “inflammatory” comments, such as Brown saying that she’s “not the first black legislator to be targeted, and won’t be the last.”
“She got targeted because she committed fraud,” Duva said. “For no other reason.”
Brown’s misrepresentations, Duva contended, merited a harsher enhanced sentence — and definitely not probation.
“Imprisonment,” said Duva, “is undeniably necessary.”
And probation, Duva said, “is not an appropriate request. And not an appropriate result.”
Attempting to further thwart attempts at pathos, Duva said that Brown “is not too old for prison,” given that she’s “vibrant,” “looks relatively healthy,” and would have run for re-election in 2018.
The lowest possible sentence Duva finds acceptable: 60 months.
For Duva, One Door is part of a larger pattern of fraud, including eight years of false tax reporting and dummied up charitable contributions. However, Brown’s attorney, witnesses, and the Congresswoman herself were to contend differently.
Sheila Jackson-Lee, Marissa Alexander lead witness parade: Texas Congresswoman Sheila Jackson-Lee was the first of the 15 character witnesses scheduled; she appeared by phone.
Jackson-Lee described it as a “privilege” to characterize Corrine Brown as the most “soft-hearted and loving person” to serve in Congress, one with a dedication to helping others.
Jackson-Lee lauded Brown’s work for rebuilding a New Orleans hospital for Veterans that was wrecked in Hurricane Katrina, showing “the character of giving to others unselfishly.”
“There was no more eloquent voice,” Jackson-Lee said, citing Brown’s “character of spirituality.”
“We miss her,” Jackson-Lee said of her former colleague.
Marissa Alexander, who Brown defended vigorously against an overcharge from former State Attorney Angela Corey in a “stand your ground” case in 2012, noted that “it’s ironic that I’m here today, doing for her what she did for me in court.”
“Because of that, I’m here for you today,” Alexander said to Brown, “instead of serving a 20-year mandatory minimum sentence.”
“There’s a difference between transactional leadership and transformative. 71 years old, and she continues to be transformative,” Alexander asserted.
Orlando Bishop Kelvin Cobaris also spoke to Brown’s character, describing her as “devoted, faithful, and committed” over the course of her 24-year career “to the needs of Veterans and others.”
Cobaris, president of the African-American Council of Christian Clergy. noted Brown’s organizing of job fairs, and lauded her for delivering on needs that “local officials couldn’t get done.”
Richard Danforth, President of the Jacksonville Urban League, spoke of a 50-year friendship with Brown, his children’s godmother.
Pastor Rudolph McKissick Sr. spoke of pastoring for “Sister Corrine” for 45 years, speaking of her as a “Christian woman,” and lauding her as “one of the great persons of our time.”
“She made sure that she worked for all people,” McKissick asserted. “I pray that mercy be given unto her.”
And a former Jacksonville city employee, Andre Martin, spoke of Brown bringing federal funds home for projects like the Automated Skyway Express; he estimated that she has brought “billions” of dollars of economic benefit to Jacksonville.
Others spoke to Brown’s charitable spirit, including a young woman who got a computer from Brown in 2006 — a device she retains to this day, a retired Colonel who spoke to Brown’s work corralling donors to stave off closure of the Five-Star Veterans Center, and another gentleman who spoke to Brown’s help in getting people home loan modifications that saved their homes.
“It wasn’t just saving people’s homes. It was saving people’s lives,” he said.
Corrine Brown speaks: “I am sorry that you have to be here today to see me in this situation. I have always strived to protect my name and my reputation.”
Corrine Brown, in an emotional, but brief, speech, castigated herself for “trusting without verifying.”
“I never would have put anyone intentionally in this situation,” Brown added, saying that “these charges … run contrary to everything I am and everything I’ve done in my life.”
Brown asked for “consideration” and “mercy and compassion”, urging that “everything she has done in her life” be taken into consideration.
Brown’s attorney, James W. Smith III, then took over.
He reiterated his case that the amount of the financial loss to donors was overstated, asserting again that donors were not misled, and that “there’s been a twisting of the facts regarding what happened with these events.”
He also reiterated his contention that money taken by Wiley and Simmons should not factor into Brown’s calculation.
Judge Timothy Corrigan spoke up, finally, asking Smith about inconsistencies in Brown’s testimony adding up to obstruction of justice — a contention of the federal government.
Smith attempted to draw a distinction between perjury and “the facts as she saw them.”
“How do you sentence someone who is a legend,” Smith asked, as he began to break into tears.
Smith noted that Brown “sometimes says things that are rude and inappropriate” in no small part because she remembers a time when America didn’t recognize the humanity of African-Americans.
“It’s easy to dismiss those issues if you didn’t grow up poor or working-class or black or a woman in the 1950s and 1960s in Florida,” Smith said, noting that many people look at Brown and “see themselves, and what they can be and do, if the barriers of racism and sexism are removed.”
One African-American lawyer from Jacksonville told Smith that “to us, she was our Martin Luther King. We were raised to believe that there were certain places we couldn’t be. Jacksonville’s a very unique town, and there were some places we were told we couldn’t be.”
Such as Congress, where Brown “broke the glass ceiling” in 1992.
“If you recognize what she had to do to achieve that,” Smith said, “to become one of the most respected politicians in the United States … none of them had to push the boulder up the hill.”
Though “sometimes as a 71-year-old black woman she’s reminded of the scars,” Smith’s contention is clear.
That Brown’s life work should be dispositive, and that the One Door era is, by no means, the full measure of her legacy.
Will all of that add up to probation? An opportunity to live out her years serving the community, working with service organizations that would happily have her offering her unique talents to them?
That’s the question to be answered Dec. 4.