Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

Prosecutor In Brown Fraud Trial: 'Sham' Charity Raised $830k, Roughly $1k Went To Education

Rep. Corrine Brown via Flickr

A whopping $330,000 — that’s how much prosecutors said sham charity One Door for Education spent on nine events connected to former Congresswoman Corrine Brown between 2012 and 2015.

Jurors heard testimony Thursday from an FBI investigator and donors, detailing spending on lavish parties, a Beyonce concert and VIP seats for a Jaguars game.

Prosecutors argue business leaders and philanthropists donated money to One Door with the understanding it would go to scholarships and opportunities for disadvantaged students. But FBI investigators said bank records and tax documents show just $10,000 of all the donations actually went to that mission. A little more than $1,000 made it to students’ education out of the more than $800,000 One Door raised during its operation.

Using fliers, emails and written checks, prosecutors detailed how the money was spent on different events over the three-year period, including $15,000 on sky box seats for a Jaguars game, $13,582 on similar VIP seats at a Beyonce concert, $89,852 on a bus trip and hotels for seniors to former President Obama’s second inauguration, and more than $55,000 on a golf tournament at TPC Sawgrass in Ponte Vedra Beach.

FBI investigator Vanessa Stelly, who first took the stand Wednesday, told the court her team couldn’t find evidence students attended these events or that any One Door scholarship was awarded.

After Stelly was dismissed, the prosecution called a series of high-profile donors, including former CSX CEO Michael Ward and Republican political consultant Susie Wiles, who ran Gov. Rick Scott’s first campaign and was co-chair of President Donald Trump’s Florida campaign.

Ward donated a total of $30,000 to One Door after being specifically solicited by Brown on three different occasions. He told the court he got to know Brown through her work on the House Transportation committee and Railroads subcommittee.

Ward said he was first asked by Brown in person to donate $10,000 to One Door for the golf tournament he thought would be raising money for scholarships. Ward said he was subsequently asked to donate cash to buy iPads and help cover the cost of a student trip to China.

Students were eventually taken to China, although the trip wasn’t as expensive as One Door said, still the vast majority of those stated goals went unfulfilled.

Ward said he “assumed some of his money would go to administrative things,” but that the majority of the money would go to helping students. When asked whether he would donate if he knew the funds would be used personally by Brown and her inner circle, Ward replied: “Absolutely not.”

Wiles told a similar story, but instead of financing One Door’s supposed charity work, she thought she was gathering checks for her legal battle against the redrawing of her congressional district.

Wiles was asked to send the checks to One Door for Education offices in Maryland, where Brown Chief of Staff, Ronnie Simmons, lived.

Wiles said she never heard back from Brown about the money and said she wouldn’t have collected money for the congresswoman had she known what it was to be spent on.

Brown’s defense lawyer James Smith questioned donors about whether they were expressly told every dollar was going solely to scholarships. He also portrayed the parties as networking opportunities for students, which he argued fit with the broad goal of One Door.

Smith also questioned FBI Agent Stelly about the mission of One Door, arguing it was much broader than providing scholarships and that its own website description changed often.

The prosecution is expected to call another 10 witnesses Friday, including Florida Democratic Party Chair Steve Bittel.

Reporter Ryan Benk can be reached at, 904-358-6319 or on Twitter @RyanMichaelBenk.

Ryan Benk is a former WJCT News reporter who joined the station in 2015 after working as a news researcher and reporter for NPR affiliate WFSU in Tallahassee.