Longtime Florida Congresswoman Corrine Brown is facing federal fraud and conspiracy charges related to her involvement with an educational charity. But Friday, supporters rallied to her defense outside the federal courthouse in Jacksonville, and some say the charges may not hurt her too much as she runs for re-election.
Back in March, Brown held court in a Tallahassee restaurant, filled with a largely African-American crowd of supporters. She railed against what she viewed as an "unjust" system trying to take her out of Congress. At the time, Brown was fighting changes to her district. District five has been reconfigured from its winding North-South orientation to run East-West: from Tallahassee to Jacksonville.
“I've been fighting this fight. And I think it's an organized effort to take me out. I do believe that."
Brown withdrew her appeal in that case, but now she’s in another fight. In addition to a congressional ethics probe, she’s now facing more than 20 federal corruption charges—both related to her involvement in a charity scheme. At that same press conference, Brown defended herself:
“I am clean! Goodness, clean...yes," she said in a response to questions about her involvement with the One Door education charity.
The federal indictment against Brown was released Friday afternoon. She and her chief of staff, Elias Simmons are charged with conspiracy to commit mail and wire fraud, multiple counts of mail and wire fraud, concealing material facts on required financial disclosure forms, theft of government property, and filing false tax returns, among other things. Brown, Simmons and One Door Charity president Carla Wiley are accused of using more than $800,000 raised for college scholarships as their personal slush fund. Only $1,200 was ever handed out in the form of a scholarship. Wiley pled guilty to charges in March.
Brown pleaded "not guilty" to the charges in a Jacksonville federal courtroom Friday.
She is facing a re-election challenge from former state Senator Al Lawson. In a statement he calls Brown’s case “unfortunate” but promises to “carry the torch of equality, decency and honesty” to Congress.
“The monkey wrench is that if Corrine Brown gets elected prior to the election," said University of North Florida Political Scientist Michael Binder in late June. A UNF poll of the CD 5 race showed Brown narrowly leading Lawson.
Binder says the indictment may not hurt Brown’s standing with her base, but could hurt her outside of Duval in the rural areas between Tallahassee and Jacksonville- and certainly in Tallahassee.
“You would imagine, with the Democrats not in Duval, and those not connected with her, that would hurt her tremendously.”
As Brown listened to the federal indictment against her in a Jacksonville courtroom, supporters chanted "No Justice, No Peace" outside.
"She's done some solid things for this city, and she'll continue to do solid things for this city," said Jacksonville resident and supporter Patrick Macon.
"I think it's just a little mud-slinging, but who knows, she's going to be tried," he said. "It's for her justice that she get a fair trial, and not just mud-slinging."
Brown has a three point lead over Lawson in the UNF survey, with some 40 percent of people polled undecided on the race. Her supporters say they’ll stay with her all the way. News4Jax.com reports if she's convicted of the charges, she could face more than 350 years in prison.
She was first elected to Congress in 1992.
*WJCT reporter Lindsey Kilbride contributed to that report.