Corrine Brown

Image courtesy of WJCT-TV/PBS

Corrine Brown’s Tainted
Political Legacy

| published June 5, 2017 |

By Earl Perkins, Thursday Review features editor

It's better to have died a small child than to be a politician who gets caught in a scandal during a slow news month —Lewis Grizzard

Corrine Brown, former U.S. Representative from Florida, was recently convicted on 18 of 22 charges stemming from her involvement with One Door for Education, a bogus charity that allowed her and two co-conspirators to use the company as a personal slush fund. Lying and bamboozling her way to a lavish lifestyle throughout her political career, Brown often claimed she was doing no wrong, and when confronted with accusations of malfeasance she would reach under her Sunday hat and whip out a tattered race card. The long-time northeast Florida lawmaker cried racism when she was indicted, and her rantings have only intensified since conviction.

Federal prosecutors told the jury that One Door was in essence a sham organization. Though it promoted itself as a charity—one with the mission of raising money to provide scholarships to students with both academic potential and serious financial need—the non-profit, never properly registered in any of the states where it accepted donations or held events, was instead little more than a front in which Brown and her inner circle accepted donations from well-meaning contributors. Donations would come in, and later money was inelegantly transferred into one of Brown’s personal bank accounts, whereupon it was used to buy gifts, clothes, sports tickets, or to pay for posh parties.

In dozens of instances, Brown’s image was found on video surveillance systems at bank ATM’s withdrawing the funds. Furthermore, the IRS took a dim view of the steady windfall, which is said she never disclosed on her taxes despite the lavish lifestyle she was able to live.

In the end, despite more than $800,000 in donations, One Door actually only delivered one scholarship for about $1,200.

Brown frequently blamed reporters for her ills when they asked her those pesky, tough questions, and she called the more recent investigations by the Justice Department and the IRS a political witch hunt driven by her enemies (even though the Justice Department at that time was helmed by appointees answerable to then-President Barack Obama).

Believe it or not, our federal political system was created as a direct reflection of ourselves—three branches with checks and balances to ensure we get everything right. Somewhere during the last couple centuries, a bastardized form of representation has been foisted upon us.

There is plenty of blame to share for the morass we have fallen into, with the almighty dollar inviting exploitation by captains of industry, kingmakers, influence peddlers and greedy politicians with moral weaknesses. Our system extorts money from taxpayers, with proceeds being forwarded to Washington, where politicians with the most seniority redistribute the funds as they see fit. "Corrine Delivers" was her most famous slogan, and did she ever—for Northeast Florida, and most infamously for herself.

Conspiracy: guilty. Mail fraud: guilty. Wire fraud: guilty. Tax crimes: guilty. A 12-member jury was unanimous in convicting her, which Brown called just wrong. Her attorney immediately told reporters that he would seek a new trial, and that he would also deploy every form of legal strategy to delay her imprisonment. Defiant following her conviction on the 18 most significant charges, Brown has turned her venom on everyone but herself, according to the Florida Times-Union.

Accusing the U.S. Attorney's Office of "a straight-out fake prosecution," the lifelong Democrat also had choice words of disappointment for her former cronies who turned against her to blunt their own punishment. Ronnie Simmons, Brown's long-time chief of staff, and Carla Wiley, past president of One Door, Brown confidante, and formerly Simmons' girlfriend, turned state's evidence and testified against her. Brown even took pot shots at her accountant, whom she said aided and abetted in her demise.

The 70-year-old Brown acted confused and disoriented when confronted with mountains of damning evidence against her on the stand, but she was struck with a moment of clarity following the trial, according to WJXT TV-4.

"Clearly if they had followed the instructions [the outcome] would have been not guilty," she said. "I still feel it was a witch hunt, and I stand by that."

In Hollywood, they give out lifetime achievement awards to those who distinguished themselves in a positive way, so maybe our legal system is finally handing down honors in the other direction. With a history of controversy and missteps dogging Brown for decades, minimal punishment emboldened her to continue visiting the trough.

Back in 1998, Brown championed the cause of Nigerian "businessman" Foutanga Dit Babani Sissoko, who was incarcerated for attempting to bribe customs officials. If you followed stories of Brown's zeal for Sissoko's cause at the time, you would have thought he was a great humanitarian or had invented a life-saving vaccine. Her friendship must have paid off, as one of Sissoko's minions gifted a $50,000 luxury automobile to Brown's daughter, which was her approximate annual salary.

Her persistent presence in Washington often made news, sometimes the wrong kind of news. Brown complained to U.S. Capitol Police that reporters tried to "intimidate" her by shoving tape recorders and microphones in her face as they blocked her path, although the report was never acted upon. If the D.C. police or Capitol cops barred every reporter with a mic, a camera or a recording device from the areas around the Senate and the House, not only would we suspend the First Amendment, but national boredom would set in.

More recently, Brown fought to stop the Florida Supreme Court from allowing her gerrymandered 5th Congressional District from being redrawn. She argued to her constituents that the new district would disenfranchise black voters, although voter rolls favored a black candidate.

"Bullies have played a dirty trick to force me out of office by re-drawing my Congressional district to cover a largely rural area of north Florida and includes 22 prisons, and convicted felons can't vote," she wrote on a campaign blog. She was beaten in last year's election by Al Lawson, a black candidate and longtime Tallahassee politician, who now holds the seat.

And then following her indictment late last year, Brown felt federal prosecutors treated her unfairly, which somehow caused her to connect personal legal woes with other tragedies in the news.

"Two black men were needlessly gunned down by police; 5 Dallas police officers were slain by a demented man, and on Friday I had to appear in federal court," she wrote on her blog.

In May, a jury deliberated for three days before returning with its verdict, determining that Brown was guilty on 18 of the 22 counts presented in the federal court. Though she had lost her pivotal congressional election months earlier, the guilty verdict effectively ended her long political career which included decades as a member of the U.S. House of Representatives, as well as many more years seriving in the Florida legislature.

Brown has certainly had her apologists step forward from the fourth estate, including the venerable Florida Star (an African-American newspaper with a generally moderately progressive take on Sunshine State politics), Folio Weekly (a generally left-leaning, well-written regional newsprint venue which seemed to deliberately gouge its own eyes out during the long run-up to Brown’s trial and conviction), and a couple so-called news organizations—all apologizing for the verdict coming back the “wrong way.”

But we shall see how history treats Corrine Brown—incarcerated, or a tarnished legacy? Victim or perpetrator?

Related Thursday Review articles:

Former Congresswoman Guilty on 18 of 22 Counts; R. Alan Clanton; Thursday Review; May 11, 2017.

Awaiting the Verdict; Earl Perkins & Alan Clanton; Thursday Review; May 7, 2017.