Matt Mueller Comments On Congresswoman’s Conviction

The Florida Times-Union Jacksonville.com – May 11, 2017 — Former U.S. Rep. Corrine Brown’s conviction Thursday could lead to years of prison time unless there are extraordinary reasons to show her mercy.

But for Brown, of course, extraordinary is nearly standard.

The Democratic icon, who has talked repeatedly about helping fund construction of Jacksonville’s federal courthouse, will likely lean hard on her decades of advocacy for Jacksonville causes when she faces U.S. District Judge Timothy Corrigan for sentencing months from now.

It will be up to Corrigan to weigh Brown’s fraud and tax crimes against the good she can claim from her 24 years in Congress.

“Some of the things she did were clearly very wrong, but at the same time, there were some really good things she’s done in her career,” said Robert Willis, a defense attorney. “Corrigan is one of the most thoughtful judges I’ve ever had experience with. I think he’ll try to balance all of that.”

Where will that balance be?

“No one could give you much of a meaningful guess,” said Willis, who recently convinced another judge to sentence former state Rep. Reggie Fullwood to home detention after he pleaded guilty to wire fraud, one of the crimes for which Brown was convicted.

Corrigan didn’t set a sentencing date for Brown, and said Thursday it would be at least three months.

History is an imprecise guide of Brown’s future.

Ten members of Congress convicted of white-collar felonies since 2001 have received sentences ranging from eight months to 13 years behind bars, averaging about five years.

Only four of those went to trial like Brown instead of taking plea bargains. Their sentences were longer, averaging about eight and a half years.

There’s an extra danger for politicians when, like Brown, they testify on their own behalf.

If they profess innocence to a jury and are still convicted, sentencing guidelines recommend extra time for being untruthful, said Matt Mueller, a former Justice Department tax specialist and federal prosecutor in Tampa who now does white-collar defense work in Washington.

Federal judges can set aside guidelines if they want, but they’re a starting point for gauging how much trouble a defendant is in.

From a distance, Mueller said Brown’s three convictions for false tax returns and the fourth for corruptly obstructing tax laws sound like they could merit guideline recommendations of five years or more, but there would be a lot of details that could affect that.

Both in tax crimes and in fraud, he said, the starting factor for sentencing guidelines is supposed to be the value lost, either to the government in tax cheats or to fraud victims in shady deals.

Compared to the super-rich, he said, the tax value isn’t terrible, but there can also be enhancements for violating public trust.

For the fraud counts, attorneys could debate how much victims really lost when they wrote $10,000 checks to One Door for Education, a sham charity where Brown helped raise the roughly $833,000 collected over several years.

The self-described scholarship fund only awarded a couple of scholarships and spent around $10,000 on other charitable work.

An attorney for Brown’s former co-defendant and chief of staff, Ronnie Simmons, said when Simmons took a plea deal in February that many donors were really interested in getting access to the congresswoman, and they got that when they wrote checks. That would mean there wasn’t much loss, so less potential for punishment.

But prosecutor Eric Olshan framed the crime differently in his closing arguments, telling jurors that “the real victims are all of those worthy kids who could have gotten scholarships, who needed a leg up. That’s who she robbed from.”

If so, the loss is more, and the potential for time behind bars is greater.

But that question could potentially become moot anyway.

Brown’s attorney, James W. Smith III, told reporters Thursday he would consider a range of steps, including the potential to seek a new trial on grounds that weren’t specified.

It may just be too early to figure that time behind bars.

“This is just the first round,” Smith said.

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