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Ex-U.S. Rep. Corrine Brown gets 5-year prison sentence in fraud case

| Monday, Dec. 4, 2017, 6:15 p.m.
Former U.S. Rep. Corrine Brown walks out of the Federal Courthouse after being sentenced to 5-years on fraud charges in connection with a charity, One Door for Education, in Jacksonville, Fla., on Monday Dec. 4, 2017.
Florida Times-Union
Former U.S. Rep. Corrine Brown walks out of the Federal Courthouse after being sentenced to 5-years on fraud charges in connection with a charity, One Door for Education, in Jacksonville, Fla., on Monday Dec. 4, 2017.

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. — Former U.S. Rep. Corrine Brown, once a powerful Florida Democrat, was sentenced Monday to five years in prison for fraud and other crimes related to a purported charity for poor students that she used as a personal slush fund.

Brown, 71, listened stoically in a Jacksonville courtroom as U.S. District Court Judge Timothy Corrigan read her sentence. She was ordered to turn herself in to prison authorities in January. Her attorney said she plans to appeal the sentence.

Brown, who in 1992 became one of the first three African-Americans elected to Congress from Florida since Reconstruction, was convicted by a federal jury in May on 18 of the 22 charges against her, which included fraud and lying on her tax returns and congressional financial disclosures.

Corrigan alluded to Brown's long history of public service before handing down the sentence, which could have been as long as nine years. The judge also cited her history of overcoming obstacles as a black woman in the South as she built a trailblazing career.

However, Corrigan said Brown succumbed to "entitlement and greed" in siphoning money from the One Door for Education Foundation of Leesburg, Virginia, for personal use. Prosecutors said the pattern of fraud by Brown and her top aide included using hundreds of thousands of dollars from the foundation for lavish parties, trips and shopping excursions.

"It is a sad day for everyone. It is a sad day for this community," Corrigan said. "I was impressed with all the outpouring of support for you and it's a tribute to you and the work you've done ... and that makes it more tragic and sad."

Brown represented a Florida district that included Jacksonville during her nearly 25-year career.

The judge said Brown used her high profile to lure donors to fundraisers, abusing her power, and was unrepentant when faced with evidence that contradicted her claims of innocence.

"The rules, she decided, did not apply to her," Corrigan said.

Brown's former chief of staff, Elias "Ronnie" Simmons, and One Door's executive director Carla Wiley accepted plea deals and testified against Brown. They were also sentenced Monday. Simmons was given four years in prison, followed by three years of probation, and Wiley received a one-year, nine-month sentence followed by three years of probation. They too were ordered to report for prison in January.

Federal prosecutors said the three used One Door to bring in more than $800,000 between 2012 and 2016, through donations and events including a high-profile golf tournament at TPC Sawgrass. The One Door gave out only one scholarship — for $1,200, to an unidentified person in Florida, according to court documents.

Simmons told jurors that his boss ordered him to take cash and checks from One Door's account on dozens of occasions and deposit the money into the congresswoman's personal account.

Brown testified in her own defense, saying she was left in the dark about the details of One Door's money, and blaming the theft on Simmons.

Brown, who wore a purple suit to the hearing, made no comment as she left the courthouse in a black Mercedes.

Her attorney, James Smith, said Brown was prepared for the possibility of a long sentence, and still maintains her innocence.

"This is a woman who has overcome a lot ... and this won't be the last thing she has to overcome," Smith told reporters outside the courthouse.

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