A federal judge sentenced former U.S. Rep. Corrine Brown to five years in prison on Monday, months after a jury convicted the Florida Democrat of fraud for using a charity for poor students as her personal expense account.
The allegations — which, in addition to fraud, included lying on tax forms and congressional disclosures — had already cost Brown her seat in Congress: She lost a primary election last year amid the scandal.
Prosecutors argued that the 71-year-old had turned a charity for poor students into an $800,000 personal slush fund, according to the Associated Press.
After a nearly 25-year career in Congress, she was convicted in May and could have spent the rest of her life in prison.
“This is a sad day for everyone,” U.S. District Judge Timothy Corrigan told Brown shortly after sentencing her, according to the Florida Times-Union. “I was impressed with all the outpouring of support for you, and I think it’s a tribute to all the work you’ve done over the years. That’s what makes this all the more tragic.”
Brown became a politician in the 1980s, according to The Washington Post’s Amber Phillips. She was elected to the Florida legislature in the 1980s and joined the House in 1993; at the time, she was one of three African Americans elected to Congress from the Sunshine State since Reconstruction.
In January 2016, Brown was served a subpoena while eating at a Jacksonville barbecue restaurant.
The court papers claimed that she and her chief of staff, Elias “Ronnie” Simmons, raised more than $800,000 for the One Door for Education scholarship fund — but had handed out only two scholarships worth $1,200.
The indictment alleged that Brown and Simmons had instead used the majority of the money for themselves — “for personal and professional benefit.”
They threw lavish parties, took expensive trips and went on shopping excursions.
Simmons and the charity’s executive director, Carla Wiley, testified against Brown in exchange for plea deals; the two were also scheduled to be sentenced Monday.
Simmons told jurors he was told to take cash and checks and deposit the money into Brown’s personal account dozens of times, according to the AP.
Brown testified in her own defense, blaming the theft on Simmons.
And at a hearing last month, her attorneys argued for leniency, saying Brown’s community work should mitigate her crimes, the AP reported.
But Corrigan, the federal judge, called Brown’s actions “especially shameless.”
“This was a crime born out of entitlement and greed committed to ensure a lifestyle that was beyond their means,” he said during Monday’s sentencing hearing, according to the Times-Union.
“Just think of the good that could have been done with that money if it would have been used for its intended purpose.”
Wiley started One Door as a scholarship fund in honor of her mother, according to the Times-Union. At some point, Simmons suggested using it to receive money that Brown’s supporters would donate during annual legislative conferences. Some of those supporters testified that Brown approached them personally and said their donations would help children.
But only a tiny portion went to actual charity, the newspaper said. Instead, the trio spent more than $330,000 on things like outings to a Beyoncé concert and a Jaguars-Redskins game in Washington.
When Brown turns herself in to authorities sometime between now and January, she’ll join a chastened list of politicians who have done stints in both Congress and prison.
In 2005, former California Rep. Duke Cunningham was sentenced in connection with the scandal that bears his name. In the scheme, according to Phillips, little-known defense contractors paid bribes (cash and, in some cases, prostitutes) to Cunningham to secure millions in federal contracts.
In 2009, Louisiana Democrat William Jefferson was sentenced to 13 years in prison for accepting hundreds of thousands of dollars in bribes, according to The Post’s Amber Phillips. Federal prosecutors said he had engaged in “the most extensive and pervasive pattern of corruption in the history of Congress.” Investigators found $90,000 in bribe money in his freezer.
Jefferson was released from federal prison last week after most of his convictions were vacated following a Supreme Court ruling that redefined public corruption.