Thursday is almost it, finally, for Corrine Brown.
The saga of the One Door For Education case comes to an end with an epic sentencing hearing for her in Jacksonville’s federal courthouse. Sentencing itself is scheduled for Dec. 4, but this hearing has enough drama to stand on its own.
For those who don’t live in this area, or who have been in a coma for the last year-and-a-half, the case boiled down to Brown, along with former chief of staff Ronnie Simmons and his erstwhile girlfriend, former One Door CEO/founder Carla Wiley, raising money for an educational charity between 2012 and 2015.
More than $800,000 went in—in $5,000 and $10,000 and $25,000 chunks.
And most of that money went out in smaller increments, a lot of it in $500 or $700 installments that were taken out of the One Door account and put into Corrine Brown’s bank account.
The money facilitated travel and “fundraising events,” such as renting a skybox at a Beyoncé concert, and a box when the Jaguars played in the D.C. area.
While the three-legged stool was balanced enough when the money was coming in, once the federal investigation got real, the stool got wobbly.
First, Wiley began cooperating with the feds.
When the trial phase began, Simmons and Brown were co-defendants and, despite having different lawyers, presented a united front.
After the court granted Simmons’ motion to separate the cases, he, too, rolled on Brown. The feds gave him a plea deal on two counts of the original 21 he faced. Trying to get the best possible deal, Simmons framed Brown as the mastermind of One Door.
Brown, to her credit or not depending on your perspective, soldiered on, maintaining her innocence.
Brown contended that she was personally charitable regardless of the charity, noting they really did take that trip to China for which they’d raised funds. She claimed she was so immersed in constituent work, she didn’t have time to monitor financial dealings such as her taxes. And though she fundraised for One Door, Brown stressed that it wasn’t her charity—she wasn’t even on the board.
The cards were stacked against Brown—a three-year paper trail and days of federal witnesses saying that she and/or Simmons put the touch on them versus her defense, which was largely bereft of witnesses appearing on her behalf. It was a one-woman show that had to be paused at least once because she lost emotional control.
The line, just before a breakdown on the stand, that I will never forget: “They’re trying to destroy my life!”
As it happens, I think she’s right.
Corrine Brown was a singular figure for a quarter-century in Northeast Florida. Mayors across her district—however it was drawn at the time—relied on her for federal help with projects. While some white people in comment threads find easy sport in making fun of her, the reality is that Brown was effective at advancing local priorities.
To be as effective as she was, especially in an absurdly gerrymandered district, she had to have an organization around her. We saw it in Jacksonville, where Von Alexander, a local PR person, handled advance for her events. She got paid, of course, and at the trial, Alexander discussed the mechanics of how those payouts went.
Money and power and affection were all intertwined in Brown’s mind. Regarding Simmons, she kept saying, “He was like a son to me.” Simmons briefly dated Brown’s daughter when both were in college, and as Brown moved to Congress, Simmons moved into running the operation.
This whole story has a real pathos that gets lost in the accounts of “Queen Corrine” drinks and shopping sprees to Los Angeles and all the rest. From the time the indictments dropped, it was obvious that Corrine Brown’s congressional career was over. From the time the trial started, it was even more obvious that the weight of evidence would overcome verbal denials and assertions of mitigating circumstances.
Covering this trial has had a few exciting moments, but the arc has been more like watching someone die from cancer than a narrative with dramatic tension.
Both sentencing hearings—Brown’s on Thursday morning, and Wiley’s and Simmons’ Wednesday morning—will have their share of drama. Expect a packed courtroom, especially on Thursday.
Whatever happens, we’re now way past the end of the Corrine Brown Era. The district has moved on; it appears Jacksonville’s best hope to take the seat back is Alvin Brown. Corrine’s political machine simply doesn’t exist the way it used to.
However, for one Thursday this week, it’ll seem as if the good old days never left, with Brown’s friends and allies on hand to support and represent.
Whatever your feelings on Corrine Brown, there’s something to be said for loyalty.