For former Congresswoman Corrine Brown, charity began and ended at home, and sometimes it made a permanent pit stop in her personal bank account.
That was the conclusion last week of a Florida jury, which unanimously convicted the 12-term Florida Democrat on 18 counts of conspiracy, tax fraud, and mail and wire fraud.
The congresswoman’s conviction was a timely reminder that the Washington swamp is real and that the combination of politics, charity, and influence remains a bipartisan source of potentially serious corruption.
Brown’s case dates back to 2011, when the then-girlfriend of Brown’s chief of staff launched the One Door for Education Foundation, a Virginia-based scholarship fund to support students who wanted to become teachers. Thanks to the founder’s Washington connections to deep-pocketed donors, as well as direct solicitations from the Congresswoman to her own supporters, the foundation quickly raised more than $800,000.00. But according to prosecutors’ documents filed in the case just three scholarships were awarded, each worth $1,000 or less. The bulk of the money ended up with the Brown’s chief of staff, his girlfriend, and ultimately with the Congresswoman herself.
The money went to everything from trips to luxury boxes for events “honoring” the congresswoman to cash deposits into her personal checking account at the Congressional Credit Union.
Although she had no formal role with the foundation, Brown was featured prominently on their website. In solicitations to donors, Brown and her staff used the congressional seal. In invitations to fundraising events, they offered donors a chance to “honor” the congresswoman. The message was simple: supporting the foundation would be akin to supporting the congresswoman. But in this case, it was literally true. And illegal.
While members of Congress are allowed to donate to and raise money for outside charities, no person involved with a charity can use funds raised for charitable purposes for direct, personal benefit. Not only did the Florida jury rule that Brown and her two associates broke that law, they found that the foundation they hid behind was not even a legal foundation registered with the IRS. For those and other crimes, Corrine Brown could spend the rest of her life in prison.
But in other cases involving the nexus of politics, charity and influence, the lines have not always been as clear.
In 2010, the New York Times investigated a series of nonprofit organizations with close ties to Washington lawmakers. The paper found that those lawmakers, in both the House and Senate, from every corner of the country, repeatedly raised money from companies and people with business before their committees or Congress at large, which in turn gave generously to the charities the senators or House members favored. Although politicians and political committees can only seek limited donations for their campaigns, charities tied to those same politicians have no such legal limits. The results, the Times found, was an open door for corporations and people seeking influence with the lawmakers to plow unlimited amount of money into foundations with direct ties to those same members of congress.
The New York Times also profiled the Congressional Black Caucus and its affiliated non-profit organizations, which the Times described as a “fundraising juggernaut” raising tens of millions of dollars over a four-year period. Again, the donations that companies and deep-pocketed donors gave to the non-profits were legal, but the access and goodwill the companies got for their money was priceless.
Fast forward to the 2016 presidential elections, and you’ll find charitable giving again in the political headlines, with the earliest months of the Clinton campaign dominated by allegations of pay-for-play dealings at the Clinton Foundation, which raked in hundreds of millions of dollars from foreign governments, multi-national companies and wealthy individuals while Hillary Clinton served as Secretary of State, and later as she mounted her own bid for the White House.
The controversy over Donald Trump’s foundation was nearly the inverse of the Clinton Foundation. While the Clinton Foundation used the tens of millions of dollars it raised on public health, education and infrastructure around the world, the Donald J. Trump Foundation appeared to raise only a modest amount of money, with Trump kicking in no money himself, and then donating even less to charitable causes, despite press releases, publicity stunts, and gigantic paper checks that claimed exactly the opposite. Instead, the Washington Post exhaustively detailed the ways the Trump Foundation did spend its money, including on legal bills for Trump businesses, a Tim Tebow-autographed helmet, and a giant portrait of Trump, which ended up on display in a Trump-owned property.
The Trump Foundation has since been closed down, but charitable contributions to Trump-affiliated originations remain a potential minefield for conflicts of interest now that Trump is in the White House. For example, after a report surfaced last month that Ivanka Trump was planning to raise money for a massive fund to help female entrepreneurs launch their businesses, and that she could raise money from foreign governments, the White House quickly clarified that the first daughter would have no authority over the fund, which is planned for the World Bank, nor would she be the one soliciting money for it.
And on Capitol Hill, nothing has changed to when it comes to donations to charities with ties to politicians. Members of Congress can still solicit unlimited funds for those groups, as long as their relationship to the charity is disclosed on each member’s personal financial disclosure forms. But there is no central clearinghouse for information about all of the charities with ties to members of Congress, their donors or their activities. The non-profits remain a mostly unregulated conduit to members of Congress. Outside of the standard IRS rules that apply to all non-profit organizations, almost anything goes.
Almost anything, except conspiracy, tax fraud, wire fraud, and mail fraud, all charges that former Rep. Corrine Brown continues to deny, but that a jury found her guilty of nonetheless.