She did not say a word.
After a judge sentenced former Congresswoman Corrine Brown to five years in prison, she walked out a side door of the federal courthouse.
Supporters attempted to clear a path to an awaiting Mercedes and shield Brown from the cameras and questions. Television helicopters hovered high overhead, the sound echoing off the walls of a courthouse Brown likes to take credit for building.
“Keep your head up!” yelled someone.
As she ducked her head into the car, television reporters shouted questions.
In the past, even when lawyers told her not to talk, she couldn’t help herself. After an appearance in court in Tallahassee, she used a bullhorn inside a buffet restaurant, creating one of the more surreal political scenes I’ve ever witnessed.
I’ve written many times, even before this case, that it was time for her to go, time for new Democratic leadership in Northeast Florida — although I figure that for purely selfish reasons I should be sad that day ever arrived.
For a newspaper columnist, Brown was gold.
She was always providing column fodder. From hyperbolic speeches to sandbags, from Freedonia to One Door for Education — a case that included details about lavish parties and a drink named the “Queen Corrine.”
I had some with fun her argument that she was a senior citizen, the victim in a scam. I wrote that senior citizens all over town should beware of this scam — the one where someone goes to an ATM, takes some cash out of one account and puts it into yours. Again and again.
More than $800,000 in donations supposedly were going for the education of needy children. The money instead went for what U.S. District Judge Timothy Corrigan called in his sentencing order “a crime borne of entitlement and greed, committed to support a lifestyle that was beyond their lawful means.”
Brown deserved to lose her seat. She and Ronnie Simmons and Carla Wiley deserved some sort of punishment.
But in the end, after the sentence was read, I didn’t feel like celebrating. Or at least not in the way some in town have giddily greeted her downfall after 24 years in Congress.
No matter how much time she spends in prison, she already has paid a steep price. It was one thing to kick her while she was up. I don’t need to kick her while she’s down. Beyond that, even if she at times played the race card, the religion card and more — during this saga, she played a whole deck of cards — it doesn’t mean that the issues she talked about, the issues facing her constituents, don’t exist.
I know her many detractors have a hard time understanding how anyone could still support her. I have a hard time understanding how people continue to support a lot of politicians today.
I’ve asked her supporters to explain. Not just the wealthy donors who gave money to One Door. Not just John Delaney and other political leaders who stood by her. Everyday folks, some of whom showed up dressed in suits and dresses for the sentencing.
I tend to focus on what often happened when Brown opened her mouth, on some of the eye-roll inducing things she was known to say. Her supporters often point to something else: her listening.
When they’d bump into her in the grocery store, they’d bring up a problem. She would listen to them. She would tell them she’d look into something for them. And often she did. That alone went a long way.
In 1992, Brown and two others had become the first African-Americans that Florida sent to Congress since the 19th century. And for some of her constituents, it was the first time they felt like they had someone in Congress whom they could call, someone who would listen to them and try to do something.
“We’ll respect the verdict, because there’s nothing else we can,” said Daytar Brown, 50, no relation to the ex-Congresswoman. “But I just think it’s unjust. She’s 71 years old. She’s taking care of her mother. And it serves no purpose for her to be sitting up in the jail on tax dollars, on my tax dollars. There are just so many folks they could be putting behind bars that really need to be there.”
In sentencing order, the judge said he actually “seriously considered” a defense request of probation with community service. But, Corrigan said, “a sentence of probation for a member of Congress convicted of 18 counts of mail, wire and tax fraud would not be sufficient.”
The 25-page order gives a fascinating glimpse into how Corrigan reached the sentences, how he struggled with the “awesome responsibility,” weighing all kinds of factors.
“As an African-American woman coming of age in Jacksonville in the 60s and 70s, Ms. Brown had to persevere and suffer indignities to achieve her goals,” Corrigan wrote. “In the process, she became an advocate for many who previously had not had a political voice. The Court received many letters of support for Ms. Brown sent by both high ranking officials and individual citizens.”
He said that while many of these letters cited her legislative achievements, the ones he found most persuasive were from individuals whom Brown had helped in some way.
“These letters, along with the effective presentation by her character witnesses, show that Ms. Brown used her high office to compile an admirable record of achievement and service,” he wrote. “But it was also this very same position as a member of Congress that allowed Ms. Brown to commit these crimes. … She cast aside the very laws that she helped to enact.”
During her political career, Brown was quick to take credit for accomplishments that involved others. During the One Door saga, she rarely took any blame. She repeatedly said she was the victim of a “witch hunt,” by everyone from the FBI to the mainstream media. (Which sounds quite familiar to the comments coming from some other leaders these days.)
The played a role when she returned to the courthouse Monday.
Corrigan said that because Brown remained unrepentant, “she cannot be afforded the same sentencing consideration as someone who accepts responsibility for her wrongful action, expresses remorse, and promises to make amends.”
After the judge read the sentences, Brown left the building through a side door, one of the final scenes (there will be an appeal) in a 21st century Shakespearean tragedy involving power, love, society and flawed humanity.
Cameras clicked. Helicopters thumped. People shouted. And in unusual twist, Corrine Brown didn’t say a word.