A longtime Democratic congresswoman from Florida was indicted Friday on charges she and her chief of staff allegedly set up a fake nonprofit they used as their “personal slush fund.”
The 24-count indictment is a stunning piece of news, though not wholly unexpected — she was mysteriously served a subpoena in January while eating at a Jacksonville barbecue restaurant, there was already a federal investigation into the nonprofit in question, and the House Ethics Committee had set up an investigation related to her campaign finance and commercial dealings as well.
Neither Brown nor her staff has commented on the charges. She is scheduled to appear in court Friday.
The indictment could shake up her reelection campaign, where she’s in one of the toughest primary fights of her two-decade political career in a newly redrawn district. Here’s what we know so far:
First, a little about Corrine Brown: She’s been in public service since the 1980s, first serving in the Florida state legislature and then coming to Congress in 1993. She currently represents the Jacksonville area and is one of the first three African Americans to represent the state in Congress since Reconstruction, according to the Associated Press.
What the indictment says: The indictment alleges that she and her chief of staff, Elias “Ronnie” Simmons, set up a college scholarship fund in Virginia, raised more than $800,000 for it, and proceeded to spend a vast majority of the money on themselves “for personal and professional benefit.”
Federal authorities allege they bought luxury boxes at concerts and football games in the D.C. area and that the nonprofit, One Door for Education, only handed out two scholarships worth $1,200. Federal authorities also say One Door was not properly registered as a nonprofit. The head of the nonprofit pleaded guilty in March to wire fraud.
Assistant Attorney General Leslie Caldwell with the Justice Department said in a statement that Brown and her top aide used the nonprofit “as a personal slush fund.”
The congresswoman and her chief of staff are officially charged on 24 different counts, including mail and wire fraud, conspiracy, obstruction and filing false tax returns. First Coast News reports the FBI has also charged Simmons with theft of government property, alleging one of his relatives received more than $700,000 in government salary despite “performing no known work.”
This isn’t her first brush with controversy: Brown has faced questions about her fundraising and relationships since her early years in Congress.
In 1998, the House Ethics Committee announced they were questioning her on a range of ethics concerns, including a $10,000 check she received from a Baptist leader in legal trouble and a $50,000 car her daughter received from a Gambian millionaire, who was an associate of Brown’s facing jail time in Florida on bribery charges. The congressional investigation decided it did not have enough evidence to prove she did anything wrong, but it did say she acted with poor judgment in having her daughter accept the car.
Also in 1998, Brown’s campaign treasurer quit after he found his name had been forged on her campaign reports.
Brown defended herself against these accusations in a passionate and fiery news conference. “I work very hard for my constituents!” Brown shouted, while supporters stepped up to the mic and gave testimonials for her. “I do it better than anybody else.” She won reelection a few months later with 55 percent of the vote.
What this means for her current reelection bid: Her reelection was already in question before Friday’s news. That’s because her Jacksonville-area district, the 5th Congressional District in Florida, was redrawn — not south, to more Democratic Orlando, but west to Tallahassee, a slightly more conservative area. Brown is challenging the new lines in court.
But her main challenge right now is in the Democratic primary, where she faces two opponents — and, according to state polling there, holds a slight lead over former state senator Al Lawson, who hails from Tallahassee. A recent University of North Florida poll found 40 percent of voters were undecided — Florida’s Aug. 30 primary is one of the last in the nation, and voters tend not to tune in until then.
News of Brown’s indictment may force them to tune in much sooner, perhaps to her detriment.