“As I have written before, when I am asked what’s the most important attribute of a good judge, I say ‘humility.’ This is especially true in sentencing,” Federal Judge Timothy Corrigan wrote in his sentencing order of former Congresswoman Corrine Brown to five years in prison on Monday.
Corrigan, who presided over Brown’s May fraud and tax evasion trial, kept an even-keeled tone as he read his 24 page decision verbatim in court.
Brown was convicted on 18 of 22 counts of tax, wire and mail fraud stemming from her involvement in the bogus charity One Door for Education.
Over a period of years beginning in 2012, Brown helped raise more than $800,000, much of which was used on lavish parties honoring the former congresswoman and to line the pockets of her and her co-conspirators.
Sentencing guidelines ranged from seven to nine years in prison for the crimes, which don’t carry a minimum mandatory sentence. Prosecutors said they were willing to settle for five and that’s exactly what was handed down.
Her former chief of staff Ronnie Simmons was given a slightly lighter sentence of four years in prison and One Door’s founder, Carla Wiley, faces 21 months.
All three are also ordered to forfeit assets totaling more than $650,000. Brown, Simmons and Wiley will also have to pay back the donors they hoodwinked, totaling more than $450,000 once they are released from prison. Brown also owes an additional $62,000 in restitution to the IRS for lying on her taxes.
Throughout the trial, Brown’s defense attorney James Smith argued that fundraising events, including a golf tournament, not resulting in significant donations to causes they purported to support, was not enough evidence of fraud.
Smith also argued the money that high-profile donors like former Florida Democratic Party Chair Stephen Bittel and GOP operative Susie Wiles gave was for political access, not charity, and thus did not result in substantial damage.
In his decision, Corrigan wrote of the donors, saying “although the government was required to notify all of these victims of their right speak at the sentencing hearing, apparently none felt sufficiently aggrieved to do so.”
“Nevertheless,” Corrigan continued. “Even taking into account the mixed motives of some of the One Door donors, all of them had a right to expect that a substantial portion of their donation would be used for the stated purpose: to help children.”
Throughout the course of the trial, FBI and IRS investigators detailed reams of bank statements, tax documents and even ATM surveillance footage to build the case that Brown’s lavish lifestyle could have only been supported if she continued siphoning cash from the shell charity.
“It’s incredibly disappointing that an elected official, who took an oath year after year to serve others, would exploit the needs of children and abuse the charitable hearts of constituents to advance her own personal and political agendas, and deliver them with virtually nothing,” said FBI Jacksonville Special Agent in Charge Charles P. Spencer. “I am proud of the exceptional work of the special agents, analysts and support personnel who spent countless hours following the money trail in this case.”
Brown was not remanded into custody immediately and is free until Jan. 8, when she’ll have to report to a yet-to-be-determined federal prison. Her lawyer James Smith said he hopes the former 12-term congresswoman would be allowed to stay home pending an appeal.
“The judge gave me a deadline of next week to file the motion for bond pending appeal and I think there are good grounds for that,” he said. “We do think there are some appealable issues where she has a good chance at prevailing. She’s clearly not a flight risk and in most other cases like this, the individuals were allowed to stay out on bond pending appeal.”
It’s not clear, however, whether Smith will stay on as Brown’s lawyer should she be granted one.
“That’s to be decided. Right now I’m still her lawyer and I’ll make sure I do everything that I need to do. If we sit down and have a conversation and she says she would like me to represent her on appeal, I’d be more than honored to do so,” he said.
Brown was already denied motions for a new trial and an outright dismissal of charges in August. Smith filed a retrial motion arguing that a juror was improperly dismissed from the case after saying the Holy Spirit said Brown was innocent.
He also filed two motions, one during the trial and another in August, arguing the government’s case against her was all circumstantial.