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Saturday, March 05, 2016
Rep. CORINNE BROWN Co-Conspirator Pleads Guilty: Florida Times-Union
Leader of Virginia group pleads guilty to conspiracy that may involve U.S. Rep. Corrine Brown
Facts in federal court papers point to Brown as unnamed co-conspirator
U.S. Rep. Corrine Brown listens to a question from the media during a news conference in May outside UF Health in Jacksonville.
Federal prosecutors Friday charged the head of an obscure Virginia organization with conspiracy to commit wire fraud, outlining a years-long scheme to defraud donors out of about $800,000 by using the power and influence of an unnamed public official. The facts presented in court papers point to U.S. Rep. Corrine Brown as that official.
Carla Wiley, president of the Leesburg, Va.-based One Door for Education, pleaded guilty and has agreed to cooperate with investigators, according to court records filed Friday.
Brown’s spokesman didn’t immediately have comment, and Wiley’s attorney could not be reached.
In her plea agreement, Wiley admitted to conspiring with an unnamed public official — referred to as “Person A” — who used an “official position to solicit contributions to One Door for Education and to induce individuals and corporate entities to make donations to One Door for Education based on false and fraudulent representations that the funds would be used for charitable purposes.” Instead, federal authorities say, that money went toward personal gain for the co-conspirators.
It’s unclear what plans prosecutors have for the unidentified public official and an additional unnamed person listed in the court records — referred to as “Person B” and who is also an employee of the official — for their roles in the conspiracy. U.S. Attorney A. Lee Bentley’s office as well as prosecutors with the public integrity section of the U.S. Justice Department are involved in the case.
In the court records, prosecutors present a detailed account of how they say Wiley and the unnamed co-conspirators raised huge sums through One Door and spent the vast majority of it to pay for their personal expenses, lavish events held in the public official’s honor and campaign activities. The group paid for only one scholarship to attend a university or college — a $1,000 payment to an individual living in Virginia, according to the court records.
One way the public official and Wiley sought donations was through a local golf tournament held in the summer of 2013, hosted by the public official. The flyers for the golf tournament included the official’s signature and seal of office, according to court records. A letter inviting people to a tournament Brown chaired featured her signature and a seal of the U.S. House of Representatives.
The Times-Union in January detailed Brown’s unusual level of involvement and fundraising efforts for One Door. The newspaper also discovered details about the 2013 golf tournament, hosted by Brown and held at TPC Sawgrass, one of most well-known courses in the country, which may have raised more than $100,000 in a single day.
Her actions promoting the tournament match the description of the unnamed public official in the court papers.
The court papers don’t name donors, but the Times-Union found that some of the city’s most prominent business leaders cut checks to One Door at Brown’s behest. And the golf tournament attracted rising and established leaders in transportation, business and politics. In addition to Brown, at least three other members of Congress attended.
The Times-Union discovered Brown’s involvement with One Door after reviewing her campaign finance reports after federal agents served her with a subpoena and visited one of her longtime aides in January. Federal authorities won’t say what they’re investigating or if One Door is related to the probe, and a spokeswoman with the office declined to comment again Friday.
But Brown’s involvement with One Door proved notable because of the group’s unusually mysterious profile, difficulties finding evidence of some of the charitable work One Door claims to have done, the lengths to which Brown has intertwined herself with the group and her refusal to discuss anything about it.
Brown has never discussed publicly her relationship with One Door or any of the work charitable work the group claims.
“It’s a legal issue and I wonder where they’re getting all that foolishness from,” Brown said of the newspaper stories at an unrelated news conference last month. “Clearly there are forces out there trying to take me out. It’s a witch hunt, and I’m the witch they’re trying to get.”
Other details of the prosecutors’ account of the conspiracy also include:
■ The public official, their employee mentioned in court records and others on behalf of the public official solicited almost all of the donations to One Door. Donors included major corporations, private philanthropies and organizations and individuals based in Jacksonville, the Washington, D.C. area and other places. Prosecutors didn’t name any of the donors.
Some of the donations exceeded $20,000.
The Times-Union has reported Brown used her name, office and political connections to steer tens of thousands of dollars to One Door. The donors included political action committees, lobbyists working for CSX and a railroad advocacy group, and private foundations, including those run by Ponte Vedra Beach doctor Gasper Lazarra and the Frisch family, whose holdings include a major seafood distribution company and the Jacksonville Armada Soccer team.
The Times-Union found $75,000 in donations through records available to the public. Other donations, like checks from most people or businesses, would not typically appear in public records.
■ Prosecutors described the July 2013 golf tournament, held in conjunction with an industry trade group’s national conference held in Jacksonville, as a fundraiser for One Door. Prosecutors say the public official told potential participants and donors to write all checks to One Door, and that the proceeds would benefit a scholarship fund for a local chapter of the trade group and other non-profits.
While One Door paid tens of thousands to put on the event, which was held in the public official’s honor, no money was raised for the scholarship fund or any other non-profits.
The Times-Union has reported that Brown hosted a golf tournament in July 2013 in conjunction with a national conference hosted by the Jacksonville Transportation Authority. It was attended by members of Congress and other prominent figures in politics, business and government.
Detailed notes kept by a JTA contractor who helped organize the event show the event may have raised $100,000. Donors included CSX CEO Michael Ward, a nonprofit run by City Councilman Reginald Gaffney and several other JTA contractors, according to the organizer’s notes.
While JTA contractors helped organize the event and the agency’s chief executive officer, Nathaniel Ford, sent out invitations to the event, the agency said it didn’t pay anyone for their assistance and that it had no direct knowledge about how the event’s proceeds were spent.
■ Prosecutors also described how Wiley and the other co-conspirators spent the money for their personal gain once it was donated to One Door.
The public official was a significant benefactor.
More than $150,000 was spent to cover costs of events associated with the public official. Those include events held in her honor at luxury hotels as well as lavish fundraisers at a music concert and an NFL football game, all which happened in Washington, D.C. No money that was raised in connection with these events was spent on charitable causes.
Tens of thousands were also taken from One Door’s bank account that match corresponding deposits into the public official’s bank account. The public official also used One Door’s money to pay for travel, as well as a $5,000 political advertisement placed in September 2014 in a Florida magazine. The magazine’s cover said it was paid for by the public official’s campaign account.
The public official’s employee played an important role in the conspiracy, prosecutors say. Using a debit card they received for One Door’s bank account, the public official’s employee withdrew the cash from an ATM close to their house. Prosecutors say the money was then deposited in the public official’s account. The court records say the withdrawals were made outside of Virginia but didn’t say where.
The public official’s employee would also ask Wiley to check One Door’s account balance and sent donor checks made out to One Door to Wiley. Those checks were sent using Federal Express labels associated with an account in the name of the public official’s office.
The public official’s employee also misspent tens of thousands of One Door’s money, using the debit card to cover personal expenses that included work on the employee’s personal luxury vehicle and expenses related to a Miami-Beach vacation they took with Wiley.
Wiley mispent One Door’s money, as well, according to court papers. She transferred about $113,000 into her bank account, withdrew an additional $27,600 and directed $16,000 from One Door’s bank account to make car payments.
■ One Door for Education’s website described itself as a charitable group that helped “make your education dreams a reality through events and fundraisers.” The web site includes pictures of the public official and Wiley.
The group is named after Amy Anderson, who is Wiley’s mother.
The group never held a federal tax-exempt status that is common to most charities and allows donations to be tax exempt, even though the group touted itself as one. It was also not holding proper state registrations necessary to legally solicit charitable donations in Virginia and Florida, according to court records.
Times-Union writer Denise Smith Amos contributed to this report.