Rep. Corrine Brown’s (D., Fla.) legal defense fund accepted thousands of dollars in contributions from registered lobbyists, which is prohibited by House ethics rules.
Brown and her chief of staff, Elias "Ronnie" Simmons, were indicted last week on 24 counts of fraud stemming from a sham foundation established by the congresswoman.
More than $800,000 was deposited into One Door for Education, Brown’s Virginia-based organization, over the course of four years. Only two checks totaling $1,200 went to charitable activities, according to the Justice Department indictment.
Federal authorities found that the money was used for the personal benefit of Brown, Simmons, and Carla Wiley, the foundation’s president. Wiley pleaded guilty to conspiracy to commit wire fraud in early March. The trio used $200,000 worth of funds to purchase goods and services like NFL tickets, plane tickets, luxury vacations and car repairs, and to throw lavish events.
The Washington Free Beacon obtained records of the Corrine Brown Legal Defense Trust, which was established in 2010. Funds in the trust have already been used to aid Brown’s legal battle. The attorneys representing Brown against the charges, William Sheppard and Elizabeth White from the Jacksonville, Fla.-based firm Sheppard, White, Kachergus & DeMaggio, received $20,000 in legal fees from the account last August.
A review of the records shows that Brown’s legal fund has received $5,750 in donations from three registered lobbyists, which is prohibited by House ethics rules.
The first contribution to Brown’s legal defense fund was made by Carl Chidlow on July 24, 2011. Chidlow was a registered lobbyist for the Florida-based Cardenas Partners, LLC at the time of his $250 donation. Chidlow was the finance director of the Democratic National Committee from 2006 to 2009.
A few days after Chidlow’s donation, on July 27, a second contribution from a registered lobbyist was given to Brown’s legal defense. Richard Pinto, who works at the D.C.-based Fabiani & Company, cut a $5,000 check to the trust.
At the time of the contribution, Pinto was registered to lobby on behalf of the Azerbaijan America Alliance, a nonpartisan organization that advocates on issues of importance to the Azerbaijani people. Brown is a member of the Congressional Azerbaijani Caucus.
Michael Korens, a Virginia-based lobbyist, wrote a $500 check to the fund on July 27, the same day as Pinto’s donation. Korens was registered to represent Virgin Atlantic Airways when he made his donation.
Korens said he was unaware that members are not allowed to accept contributions for their legal defense from lobbyists when he made the donation.
"I take my lobbying disclosure and ethical responsibilities very seriously," Korens told the Free Beacon. "Accordingly, after I received your email, I called the House Ethics Committee to ask if my mistake violated any rules and, if so, to self-report a violation. I was advised that rule only prohibits Members from accepting such contributions and I therefore did not violate any rules by making it. While a relief, I still made a mistake assuming it was permissible when I was asked to make it."
When asked who solicited the contribution, Korens provided the Free Beacon with an email from Roger Simmons, Brown’s chief of staff, with a flyer attached for a private event for the legal defense fund. The event with Brown was held on July 27, 2011 at Johnny’s Half Shell, a recently closed seafood restaurant on Capitol Hill.
Korens said he did not attend the event but mailed a check to the fund. Pinto’s $5,000 donation was dated July 27, the day of the event. Korens and Pinto are the only two donors whose checks were dated July 27.
The lobbyists who provided the contributions did not violate ethics rules. However, the congresswoman’s legal defense fund is prohibited by House rules from taking their donations.
"A Member, officer, or employee may accept ‘a contribution or other payment to a legal expense fund established for the benefit of [the official] that is otherwise lawfully made in accordance with the restrictions and disclosure requirements of the Committee on Standards of Official Conduct,’" according to the ethics committee website. "However, such a contribution or other payment may not be accepted from a registered lobbyist or an agent of a foreign principal."
Tom Rust, the chief counsel on the Committee on Ethics, would not provide a comment on lobbyist donations that go to legal expense trusts.
Elliot Berke, managing partner at Berke Ferah LLP and former in-house counsel and ethics advisor to senior members of House leadership, told the Free Beacon that the rules on lobbyists contributions are clear.