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Corrine Brown sentenced to 5 years in prison, will appeal sentence

The slogan of purported educational charity One Door for Education was “we make your educational dreams a reality.” On Monday, Corrine Brown and her co-conspirators in the years-long scheme got an education of her own about reality.

That reality: a future of incarceration and reimbursement of those defrauded over the course of years on their behalf.

After a legal ordeal lasting the better part of two years, Corrine Brown and her two co-conspirators in the One Door for Education case — former chief of staff Ronnie Simmons and the former CEO of the charity, Carla Wiley — faced sentencing Monday morning in a Jacksonville courthouse.

The sentencing essentially gave voice to the jury’s verdict, with Judge Timothy Corrigan noting that Brown’s comments were “reprehensible” at times, such as when she said the Pulse massacre happened because the FBI was too busy investigating her.

Brown got a sentence that reflected a spirit of “general deterrence,” a sentence “in the mainstream” of public corruption cases in recent years. In other words, the judge did not go easy on her.

“A sentence of probation for a member of Congress convicted of 18 counts would not be sufficient,” Corrigan said.

Brown got 60 months in prison, three years of supervised release, $62,650 to the IRS, and $452,000 of additional restitution, and $664,000 of forfeiture.

Brown will appeal, though attorney James Smith has yet to determine if he will see that appeal through.

Simmons and Wiley, meanwhile, got lesser sentences.

Wiley got 21 months in prison, three years of supervised release, $452,515 in restitution is owed also, along with a $654,000 forfeiture judgment.

Simmons, meanwhile, got 48 months in prison, three years of supervised release, $452,000 of restitution and an additional $91,000 to the House of Representatives for pay for a phony employee of Brown’s staff. An additional $721,000 of forfeiture is due.

Brown, Simmons and Wiley have 14 days to appeal, and will be allowed to voluntarily surrender to the Bureau of Prisons no earlier than Jan. 8 2018.

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Brown was found guilty earlier this year, her protestations of innocence notwithstanding, of a laundry list of 18 charges: among them, conspiracy to defraud, wire fraud, mail fraud, tax fraud, and fraudulent financial disclosures.

She has never admitted guilt, except for saying she trusted without “verifying,” in a November plea for “mercy and compassion.”

Judge Timothy Corrigan spent the better part of three weeks evaluating the proper sentence for Brown, Simmons, and Wiley; he noted that he received “hundreds of letters” on Brown’s behalf before and after the November sentencing hearing, and lauded Brown’s defense for making “good arguments on Brown’s behalf.”

That said, Corrigan did not downplay the nature of the “shameless fraud” committed by the One Door 3, nor the gravity of “lining the pockets” of the co-conspirators with over $833,000 in misbegotten funds between 2012 and 2015.

$330,000 went to events held in Brown’s honor, Corrigan said, events that had “nothing to do” with One Door or charity for children. $93,000+ went to ATM withdrawals, and other monies were dispersed to Brown and her co-conspirators, Corrigan noted, for pleasure trips and incidental expenses.

“The public had a right to expect,” Judge Corrigan said, that Brown and Simmons would not “abuse their positions of public trust and responsibility … this was a crime borne of entitlement and greed … bad business.”

Corrigan also noted that none of the donors — millionaires and billionaires — were “ruined” by their donations, adding that many of them were effectively transactional and driven by “mixed motives.”

Brown was dinged for “abuse of position of trust,” which facilitated victims placing a “special trust” in the defendant.

“Brown traded on her status as a member of Congress to facilitate donations to One Door,” Corrigan said.

As well, “obstruction of justice” did not apply to Brown, per Corrigan’s calculation. Despite there being “incredible … untruthful testimony” that was “hedging, non-committal, off-topic,” that didn’t amount to perjury.

That was the sole bit of good news, as Corrigan said that “brazen doesn’t begin to describe” the scheme.

Sentencing looms for Corrine Brown, but will justice be served?

Sentencing looms Monday morning for Corrine Brown and her two co-conspirators in the One Door for Education case.

Brown, her former chief of staff Ronnie Simmons and the former CEO of the charity, Carla Wiley, almost certainly face prison time and restitution.

Brown is looking at $1,179,459.25 in restitution and fines; she also could face up to nine years in prison, although prosecutors were willing to settle for five during her sentencing hearing last month.

The feds are willing to give Wiley as few as 21 months and $452,515.87 in restitution/fines, and Simmons as few as 33 months and $544,137.25 in restitution/fines; both sentences were granted a sentence reduction due to “substantial assistance” in the case against the former U.S. Representative.

Of course, prison time isn’t actually required in this case. Judge Timothy Corrigan will ultimately make the decision, having mulled it over since the mid-November sentencing hearings.

Assuming that Brown (and Simmons and Wiley) get prison time and get put on the hook for restitution, it’s pretty easy to anticipate what comes next.

Many of the same folks who have flooded comment threads with “lock her up” messages will flood the block again with memes, perhaps even with clever wordplay about “Chlorine Brown” or “Go Gata,” or maybe an iconic meme (Kermit the Frog sipping tea?).

And for what? The prospect of a 70+ year old woman, one who has trouble climbing stairs, one who clearly is of diminished mental and physical capacity, going to prison.

People yearn for the ritual destruction. There are those reading this who have imagined Brown in an orange jumpsuit so much that it qualifies as a fetish.

That says more about the critics than it does about Brown.

There has always been a certain air of corruption around the Brown operation.

Consider the Lexus that an “associate” of a West African millionaire bought her daughter in 1998, after Brown lobbied Attorney General Janet Reno to keep him out of prison. The House Ethics Committee found no evidence of explicit wrongdoing, yet contended that the gift “created substantial concerns regarding both the appearance of impropriety and the reputation of the House of Representatives.”

The car was sold once the media took interest in the matter.

Consider the case of her travel agency. In the early 1990s, Brown’s State House employees double dipped working at Brown’s travel agency. It may or may not have been on state time.

The Orlando Sentinel quoted the settlement: Brown ”recognizes that she should have been more diligent in the handling of the business affairs of her travel agency and regrets any inadvertent violation of the law that may have resulted.”

These matters skirted the boundary line between apparent impropriety and legal culpability.

The current case, according to a jury of Brown’s peers, crossed that line.

Brown, during her hearing last month, made the case for “mercy and compassion.” And — as was the case when she got dinged for travel agency issues — castigated herself for “trusting without verifying.”

“I have always strived to protect my name and my reputation … 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.”

Is that for real? If it’s not for real, is it real to Brown?

While the supporters of Brown that assembled for TV cameras during the trial were a rather motley lot (including some paid supporters), the reality is that there are very important people in the Jacksonville political sphere who believe that Brown is not guilty.

Sen. Audrey Gibson, who will lead the Senate Democrats after the 2018 elections, said Brown “says she is innocent and that is that!”

Former Jacksonville Mayor John Delaney — who was a defense witness at the trial, and who has spoken positively of her throughout this process — observed last week that “The swift and complete condemnation came before the facts were even understood. And to be honest, to this minute I don’t think she was guilty—I really don’t think she knew.”

Delaney believes that, in terms of the charges, Brown is innocent.

Want to dismiss him? Good luck.

Delaney, currently the president of the University of North Florida, was once Jacksonville’s general counsel. Before that he was an assistant state attorney, where he handled plenty of prosecutions.

Did Brown know what she was doing? Or what was being done in her name?

During the one-woman show that was her defense during the trial, Brown asserted that prosecutors were “trying to destroy [her] life,” by continually contending that she knew that money was being taken from donors, that her tax returns had fraudulent omissions and additions, and that she was the mastermind of the scheme.

She couldn’t convince anyone in the courtroom otherwise. At least, anyone but those who came in convinced that she wasn’t guilty, and that the whole sorry affair was a frame job.

Monday brings a resolution of sorts. We will learn Brown’s final sentence.

But will that sentence be justice in the real sense?

Residency not an issue in Rose Conry bid for Jax City Council

There are fifteen months until the election, yet mud has already begun to fly in a Jacksonville City Council race.

In Council District 6, where Republicans Michael Boylan and Rose Conry are vying to replace termed-out Republican Matt Schellenberg, questions have emerged about Conry’s recent move to Mandarin.

While that is technically true, a spokesman for the Conry campaign explained the very real caveats.

She had moved from Jacksonville to Orange Park to care for her dying mother, the spokesman said, and she moved back to Mandarin several months ago, after helping her mother through her final days.

Conry is and has been a JaxChamber board member throughout the whole period and also has maintained her StaffTime business.

Worth noting: the narrative emerged not from a supporter of Boylan, who filed his papers this week, but from a Republican with connections to the district.

This is the first — but definitely not the last — bit of narrative that will emerge about this race.

Expect that Boylan’s tenure at WJCT, where he has served as president and CEO for years, will come under scrutiny before it’s all over.

Also expect that at least one other serious Republican candidate will run for this seat.

Conry, who filed in October, had $18,675 cash on hand on the most recent campaign finance report.

Boylan’s first report will be available in December.

Lisa King will resign FDP committeewoman post if elected Duval Dems chair

A bit of late-breaking controversy has emerged between Hazel Gillis and Lisa King in the race for Duval Democratic Party Chairwoman.

Some members of the local party have raised issue with King running for the chair while serving as a committeewoman in the Florida Democratic Party.

Florida Politics talked to King about it Friday, and she says that if she is elected chair on Monday evening, she will resign the state post — but not immediately.

She doesn’t have to resign at all, she notes; bylaws permit serving in both roles, and that happens elsewhere in the state.

But she has a salient reason to stay as committeewoman for a couple of months, she says.

“I feel a responsibility to get through the new state party chair’s first meeting,” King said, to “ensure the issue of sexual harassment is addressed.”

“I want an opportunity to be there and say my piece,” King said, describing herself as a “leader of the conversation” on the issue of sexual harassment, which she wants to “bring in for a landing.”

King doesn’t expect the issue, which she sees as “more important than personal political considerations,” to be addressed at the Dec. vote.

Stephen Bittel left the chair of the Florida Democratic Party after multiple allegations of being  “creepy” and “demeaning” toward women in the workplace. King ran unsuccessfully against Bittel for that position, and she was motivated to run in part because Bittel’s reputation preceded him.

The state party chair election is Dec. 9, and the first meeting under new leadership is in February.

King “doubts” she would stay after the first meeting of the state party under that new chair, as there would be “so much work as [county] chair” that she would have “no time to serve in both roles.”

King isn’t worried about the dual roles she would have, if elected chair, through at least February. She notes that the “major funders in Jacksonville were also funders in [her] state party race.”

If King loses the chair vote Monday, and Gillis wins, King will stay on as committeewoman.

King and Gillis are running in a special election because Sen. Audrey Gibson resigned the chair, after being chosen as Leader Designate of the Senate Democrat Caucus.

Michael Boylan launches Jacksonville City Council run

Michael Boylan, the President and CEO of Jacksonville’s WJCT Public Broadcasting, filed papers Monday to launch his campaign for City Council.

Boylan’s interest in running has been an open secret for some time; he is nearing the end of his tenure at the Jacksonville public broadcasting station.

Boylan is running to replace termed-out Republican Matt Schellenberg in District 6, and is the second candidate to enter the race.

Rose Conry, CEO and co-founder of StaffTime in Jacksonville, filed in October.

Both are Republicans.

Her first month’s fundraising was promising, but not at a level that would scare opposition off. Conry brought in $18,675.

The Kennel Clubs and the Fiorentino Group donated, as did Jax Chamber Chair Darnell Smith.

Word is that at least one more well-known candidate, Geoff Youngblood, is looking at a run.

The “first election” would be in March 2019; if there is no candidate with a majority of the vote, there would be a runoff in May 2019.

Could climate change presage Jacksonville credit downgrade?

Not even three months after Hurricane Irma comes an indication, via Moody’s, that a storm may be brewing in municipal credit markets.

Via Bloomberg: “If cities and states don’t deal with risks from surging seas or intense storms, they are at greater risk of default.”

Moody’s considers six indicators to measure exposure, like how many homes are in a flood plain — an issue for Jacksonville.

During Hurricane Matthew, Jacksonville issued mandatory evacuations in Flood Zones A, B, and C; these encompassed 450,000 people.

During Irma, Jacksonville evacuated zones A and B, which encompassed 256,000 people.

Despite those evacuation orders, life was imperiled: 350 residents had to be rescued in the hours after the storm churned out of the area. Downtown Jacksonville suffered historic flooding, as did neighborhoods on the river, such as Avondale, Riverside and San Marco.

While Moody’s has yet to actually downgrade a city for not addressing climate change, Jacksonville has physical vulnerability.

As well, the city has backed away from nationwide initiatives — such as the Rockefeller Foundation’s “100 Resilient Cities,” which offered $1 million a year to participating municipalities.

Jacksonville Mayor Lenny Curry — who created a media kerfuffle earlier this year in backing President Donald Trump‘s intention to leave the Paris Accord, an international agreement to curb emissions and other environmental impacts, is not worried about potential future credit downgrades, he told us Wednesday.

“Sea levels are rising, in Jacksonville and the state. We certainly experience catastrophic storms … and we in Jacksonville are doing everything we can to invest in proper infrastructure on the front end, and [working] to keep our people safe on the back end,” Curry said.

“Our Public Works Department has a comprehensive plan they are currently re-evaluating and have been prior to these storms. So I would say we face the reality in front of us and those rising sea levels and those storms are a reality in front of us, and we will adjust accordingly,” Curry added.

But will that convince the bond ratings agencies?

“Budgets — real budgets and real investments speak to bond rating agencies. Not a bunch of feel-good talk that a lot of elected officials like to do that result in no real investments and no real budgets,” Curry said.

“I stand by my budgets. I stand by my work with City Council. I stand by our investments in neighborhoods and infrastructure,” Curry added.

Jacksonville’s credit ratings have improved in recent years.

However, Moody’s already expressed concern about pension reform, specifically about the deferred payment model on the $3.2 billion unfunded actuarial liability from the city’s defined benefit plans.

“The Aa2 Issuer Rating reflects the city’s high fixed costs, which are elevated by weak pension funding levels. Despite a new pension reform plan, pension payments will continue to constrict the city’s financial operations. The rating also reflects the city’s rebounding, large and diverse economy, coupled with a strengthened balance sheet position, that both help buoy the rating at the current level. Moody’s will closely monitor the city’s ability to control rapidly increasing fixed costs,” the agency asserted in August.

Will money decide the Bill Bishop Vs. Ron Salem race for Jax City Council?

When the Jacksonville media finally begins paying attention to 2019 City Council races, bet that the at-large contest between Bill Bishop and Ron Salem will feature.

It has to.

Though media turnover on the television side necessarily dictates many TV reporters won’t remember Bishop’s audacious play for mayor in 2015 (an underfunded run that nonetheless garnered 17 percent of the vote in a four-way race in the “first election“).

But for locals — especially certain activists — the Bishop phenomenon was real.

He carved out a unique role in the race: he was seen as the truth teller candidate. Despite being a relatively conventional conservative Republican in his eight years on City Council, Bishop brought together a unique coalition of Democrats disaffected with Alvin Brown and Republicans that, for reasons that seem esoteric in retrospect, weren’t willing to support Lenny Curry.

That race ended and Bishop vowed to run in 2019 — but not before endorsing Brown’s re-election.

From there, most reading this know what happened next: Curry won the election, and Bishop couldn’t pull the trigger on challenging Curry, opting instead for an at-large run to replace termed-out incumbent John Crescimbeni.

Bishop has moved toward a more doctrinaire Republican stance, appearing at events put on by the Duval County Republican Party (that endorsed Curry over Bishop in 2015), and showing up to a meeting of the Southside Business Men’s Club with conservative radio talk show host Ed Dean as his special guest.

While Bishop is making moves to shore up his GOP bona fides, opponent Salem is widening the gap with the former two-term district Councilman in the money race.

Bishop had a respectable first month in the race in October — bringing in $13,325 off of 24 contributions — though Salem almost matched him, with $11,125 collected in what was Salem’s best month since May.

When it comes to cash on hand, Salem is running away with it: just under $114,000, and that number looks likely to widen on the November report.

A Salem fundraiser on Wednesday night contained a veritable “who’s who” of the Jacksonville Republican power base.

Mayor Curry was special guest, and former Mayor John Peyton was just one name on an impressive host committee that also included Peter RummellMichael MunzJamie SheltonJohn Rood and others who typically back winning candidates.

A source connected to the Salem campaign noted Curry’s presence reflects continued “support,” a proposition questioned by some GOP consultants in recent months.

Curry, we are told, is “for Ron, not against anyone” — a seeming allusion to the bad blood between Curry and Bishop in the wake of Bishop backing Brown in the runoff in 2015.

The total haul is yet to be determined; however, 50 people showed to the event, including Councilman Al Ferraro.

Salem also has a resource that Bishop — as of yet — does not: a political committee: “Moving Jacksonville Forward.”

Bishop has the advantage in name identification; however, one wonders if that will translate by 2019, especially when Salem has the Curry machine behind him, while Bishop is — as he was in his mayoral bid — compelled to go forward without that kind of institutional support and the stability it affords a political operation.

There is, of course, a chance that wildcards — including money from outside Northeast Florida — could come into play in this race. Salem is a candidate of Tim Baker and Brian Hughes; some are suggesting that money from Sen. Jack Latvala‘s political committee could be deployed against their clients.

Even Bishop attending events with Ed Dean could be seen as a jab at the Baker/Hughes machine, as Dean and Hughes are not aligned.

This race may be about much more than a City Council seat in the end.

Bill Bishop photo courtesy of Folio Weekly.

Paul Renner previews 2018 Legislative Session in Jacksonville

Palm Coast Republican Paul Renner has quickly become one of the most powerful members of the Florida House.

He chairs Ways and Means, and he is on the track to be Speaker in 2022.

Although he represents Palm Coast, Renner practices law in — and has roots in — Jacksonville, where he found himself speaking Wednesday to a crowd at the Southside Business Men’s Club.

The remarks Wednesday offered optimism tempered by a sense of Florida’s challenges, both in this Legislative Session and in the years ahead.

While Florida has “the right policies,” is headed in “the right direction” and has a “bright future,” the state nonetheless faces challenges.

Among those challenges: population growth, including a near-term influx from storm-ravaged Puerto Rico and long term expectations that Florida could add six to eight million people in the coming years. And roads and other infrastructural issues.

Despite Florida being “the #1 state for fiscal health,” Renner contends that the state’s budget looks to be a “break even proposition,” with a meager $50 million surplus — even before Irma happened.

“I don’t know where we are,” Renner said, regarding the budget situation.

Another pressure Renner cited: the state’s health care budget, with Medicaid comprising almost a third of budget, with growth in costs outpacing revenues.

Federal financial help in absorbing the influx of people from Puerto Rico, Renner said, is “something we’d like to see.” But he didn’t sound optimistic that’s in the cards.

Renner also discussed the ongoing imbroglio about medical marijuana; though he didn’t support Amendment 2, he respects the mandate of the voters, noting that “70 percent plus” voted in favor of the ballot measure.

Renner does not believe the amendment covers smokeable cannabis, presenting a familiar argument that without dosage controls and with toxins emitted from burning the herb, “it’s not medicine” and it’s hard to regulate “specific potency” in the way one can with pills, lotions, and vaping.

Regarding implementation delays of the program, Renner says it’s “taken too long,” and fault lies with the Department of Health in “getting the process up and running” for “individuals who are entitled to” medical cannabis.

Renner moved on to discuss economic incentives; he doesn’t expect any change in the House policy there.

Meanwhile, when asked about Amazon’s new headquarters — one that many Florida cities have extended bids for, amidst a sea of cities elsewhere in the country offering unprecedented tax breaks to draw in the company — Renner seemed to think that “Florida is a permanent incentive” and that, as such, more tangible incentives aren’t necessary.

“Government picking winners and losers is something I can’t get my arms around,” Renner said, occasioning applause from the crowd.

Lenny Curry frames JEA privatization proposal as an example of thinking big

The big local story this week was on Tuesday, when former JEA Board Chairman Tom Petway said customers of the 50-year-old municipal Jacksonville utility might be better off under a privatized model.

Jacksonville City Council members — such as Matt Schellenberg and Garrett Dennis — were open to the idea, while Jacksonville Mayor Lenny Curry framed it as a “simple request” to “explore the value” of that public asset.

“As a reform-minded mayor, I welcome this challenge and will work with City Council leadership to answer these questions,” Curry asserted Tuesday.

At a press availability Wednesday, Curry further discussed the audacious proposal by one of his staunchest political supporters.

“[Petway and] I’ve had abstract conversations about challenging the utility to think big,” Curry said. “Numerous times.”

“I’ve been about reform, challenge, changing the status quo,” Curry added. “And he certainly challenged the organization to think big yesterday.”

“What needs to happen is a fair look at that, an independent look at that,” he continued. “He challenged the organization to do just that. That’s what’s fair to taxpayers, fair to ratepayers, and we’ll see where that leads.”

As we noted yesterday, discussions of privatization have happened before. In 2007 and 2012, there wasn’t political appetite for such.

Next year may be a different story. A hallmark of Curry’s first term in office has been reform, including pension reform, as well as reform of the city’s children’s services organizations and reinstitution of the city’s Neighborhoods Department —  All of which were driven by the Curry’s office.

Council members have pushed their own reform measures; the expansion of the city’s Human Rights Ordinance to include LGBT people this year was driven by Council co-sponsors, and in that case the Mayor’s Office demurred from taking an overt position on the legislation.

However, it is clear that in this instance it will be incumbent on Curry’s shop to frame the narrative and build consensus.

The city has dealt with hurricanes and power outages in each of the last two years, and both situations brought scrutiny to JEA. However, much of the state — including areas serviced by Florida Power and Light and Duke Energy — dealt with power outages that lasted weeks.

Mayor Curry noted that Petway was a “successful businessman and a civic servant long before anybody knew who [Curry] was,” adding that Petway “has served this city and community in so many ways,” including “filling the role” at JEA after Curry reconfigured the JEA Board in 2015.

While Curry hasn’t put his official imprimatur on the potential privatization of the local utility, what is clear is that he and his operation are not averse to the dialogue and a review of positives and negatives of such a move.

Jacksonville Sheriff Mike Williams files for re-election

Jacksonville Sheriff Mike Williams filed for re-election Tuesday, opening a campaign account and launching an operation well ahead of the 2019 vote.

Despite the formal filing for re-election, it’s clear that Williams has been working in that direction for months.

Williams’ political committee, “A Safe Jacksonville,” has raised $154,000, and has $131,000 on hand.

The committee’s spending in September and October reflected a nascent re-election campaign, with a $10,000 October spend with Jacksonville consultant Bruce Barcelo on constituent polling, after a September spend of $8,900 with Data Targeting Research for the same.

Williams took heat for the latter poll late this summer from the Jacksonville City Council, some members of which felt “targeted” by a poll showing that Jacksonville residents prioritized more police hires, a survey they saw as pressuring them into approving the sheriff’s ask.

While we don’t have access to the internal polls, the most recent public poll shows that Sheriff Williams is popular.

The first-term Republican Sheriff has 67 percent approval — and 60 percent approval among Democrats.

Williams also has broad appeal in all ethnic groups; his worst performance in the survey is 54 percent with African-American voters.

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