U.S. News

Florida congresswoman indicted in fraud scheme

TAMPA, Fla. (Reuters) - A federal grand jury indicted U.S. Representative Corrine Brown of Florida and her chief of staff on fraud charges and other crimes, accusing them of funneling money for a bogus education charity to personal use, U.S. prosecutors said on Friday.

The 69-year-old Democrat from Jacksonville, Florida, denied that she had used her political position to help raise more than $800,000 that donors believed supported college scholarships and other educational purposes.

According to the 53-page indictment filed in U.S. District Court for the Middle District of Florida this week, funds donated to the group One Door for Education were used to pay for a golf tournament honoring Brown, luxury box seats at a Beyonce concert, a football game and other personal expenses.

Prosecutors noted that the organization was not properly registered as a non-profit group and awarded only two scholarships totaling $1,200.

“I am innocent of the charges announced today, and intend to vigorously defend myself in court against these politically motivated allegations,” Brown said in a statement.

She said she would temporarily step down from her role as the Ranking Member of the U.S. House of Representatives Committee on Veterans’ Affairs due to House rules.

The 24-count indictment also accuses her chief of staff, Elias “Ronnie” Simmons, 50, of multiple counts of fraud.

There was no immediate response from Brown’s office to requests for comment from Simmons.

During a court appearance on Friday, Brown and Simmons pleaded not guilty, local media reported.

“It is incredibly disappointing that an elected official, who took an oath year after year to serve others, would exploit the needs of children and abuse the charitable hearts of constituents to advance her own personal and political agendas and deliver them with virtually nothing,” Michelle Klimt, special agent in charge of the U.S. Federal Bureau of Investigation division in Jacksonville, said in a statement.

Brown was elected to Congress in 1992 as one of the first three black members of Florida’s congressional delegation since the Reconstruction period following the Civil War. Now seeking re-election, she faces a primary challenge in a redrawn district.

Her indictment follows the June conviction of U.S. Representative Chaka Fattah of Philadelphia for orchestrating multiple frauds to enrich himself and preserve his political career. He subsequently resigned.

Prosecutors said Simmons misused his position to help a relative obtain government employment and receive more than $735,000 without doing work. They said he diverted more than $80,000 of his relative’s salary for his own personal use.

Brown is also accused of falsifying her tax filings.

Reporting by Letitia Stein; Editing by Richard Chang and Diane Craft