Wednesday, May 23, 2018
Opinion

Ruth: Corrine Brown’s ignominious fall from grace

This is a cautionary tale of how to go from a civil rights icon to a civil rights huckster.

You may have heard the old axiom that we all have a price — it’s only a matter of negotiation. In former Democratic U.S. Rep. Corrine Brown’s case, the going rate for her reputation and historic status as one of the first African-Americans elected to Congress from Florida since Reconstruction was about $800,000.

The former Jacksonville congresswoman was sentenced this week in federal court to five years in prison after being convicted on 18 of the 22 charges against her, which included fraud and lying on her tax returns and financial disclosure forms.

During her sentencing hearing before U.S. District Judge Timothy Corrigan, the court was presented with a long litany of testimonials lauding the now convicted felon’s tireless work on behalf of the African-American community. And it’s true. Corrine Brown had enjoyed a stature as civil rights trailblazer.

And in a sense all that jibber-jabber about how wonderful Corrine Brown was actually contributed to her downfall, as the judge told the defendant she had used her image as an honorable civil rights leader and dedicated public servant to defraud people who had placed their trust in her.

At issue was Brown’s role with the One Door for Education Foundation, a Virginia-based charity, which was created to raise money for minority scholarships. From 2012 to 2016, the foundation took in more than $800,000 and yet only a single $1,200 scholarship was ever dispensed. Apparently the organization took its name literally.

Brown used her high profile to hustle donors and stage elaborate fundraising events at places like the tony TPC Sawgrass golf resort. Donors thought they were helping the disadvantaged.

During her trial, jurors heard testimony from Brown’s former chief of staff, Elias "Ronnie" Simmons, that he was ordered to withdraw vast sums of money from One Door’s coffers and deposit the cash into the congresswoman’s personal accounts.

The ill-gotten slush funds were then used to finance Brown’s travels, chi-chi parties and shopping sprees.

Ever unrepentant, Brown attempted to foist off her predicament on Simmons, claiming she knew nothing about One Door’s finances. We pause here for a simple question.

Did Brown expect anyone to believe that when hundreds of thousands of dollars started showing up in her bank accounts she never bothered to ask anyone: "Hey! Where’s all this money coming from?"

Did she think the ballooning balances were simply her congressional Christmas bonus in addition to her $174,000 public paycheck? In a perverse sense, you could argue they were. And as she was jetting off to some ritzy vacation, or dropping a bundle at the mall, or hosting some swanky soiree, it never occurred to her how it was all being paid for? Pixie dust maybe?

This is almost always the default alibi when a corrupt pol gets caught up to their neck in the cookie jar. I didn’t know. I was too busy doing the vital work for the lowly people to pay attention to all that moolah flowing my way. It was my minion’s fault. He’s the one you want.

Corrine Brown’s fall isn’t about politics. It isn’t about race.

It’s about greed. It’s about arrogance. It’s about a twisted sense of entitlement. It certainly is about an egregious betrayal of the public trust.

Simmons will do some jail time, too: four years in the federal slammer. And so will One Door’s former executive director Carla Wiley, who received three years in prison.

The five years handed out to Corrine Brown isn’t the harshest sentence she faces at the age of 71.

Long after Brown does her time, she will be forever remembered as just another sleazy Florida politician who used her office to pad her pockets at the expense of poor minority students who were denied an education because their congresswoman needed a new pair of shoes.

That’s Corrine Brown’s legacy.

There is a small irony to Brown’s comeuppance. When she finally shows up to begin her sentence and hears the sound of a clank behind her, she will be reminded that prison cells have just … One Door.

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