Corrine Brown was born in Jacksonville, Florida on November 11, 1946. She attended Florida A&M University, where she earned an undergraduate degree in 1969 and a master’s degree in 1971. Between 1977 and 1992, Brown spent time on the faculties of Edward Waters College, Florida Community College, and the University of Florida. From 1983-92, she served as a Democrat in the Florida House of Representatives.
In 1992 Brown was positioned to seize the custom-made opportunity offered by Florida’s newly gerrymandered Third Congressional District, a wishbone-shaped, majority-black district that wound its way through 14 counties. During her congressional run that year, Brown sparked controversy when she paid $5,000 in campaign funds to a St. Petersburg company bearing the same address as the church headed by her longtime political ally, National Baptist Convention USA president Henry Lyons, a man with a long track record of financial malfeasance. Brown claimed that the payment was for the purchase of a computer from Lyons’s company, but in fact that entity had been dissolved six years earlier. Notwithstanding that controversy, Brown won her 1992 election and promptly became a member of both the Congressional Progressive Caucus and the Congressional Black Caucus.
In 1993 Brown used taxpayer dollars to pay Florida minister Fred Demps, a close business partner of Henry Lyons, to do “community outreach” for her. Demps had previously helped Lyons defraud several corporations.
Also in 1993, Brown’s congressional office reserved several airline tickets for Lyons at a special discounted rate that was supposed to be available only to government employees traveling on official business. That same year, Brown paid a $5,000 fine to the Florida Ethics Commission, which found that she had inappropriately used legislative staff members as employees in a travel agency she owned.
In November 1994, a Federal Election Commission audit concluded that Brown’s 1992 campaign had violated a number of campaign finance laws. Among the violations were: (a) her use of a corporate plane without proof that she had paid for it; and (b) her acceptance of donations from companies and foreign citizens.
During her 1996 reelection campaign, which was endorsed by the Democratic Socialists of America‘s Political Action Committee, Brown accepted a $10,000 contribution—far more than the $1,000 individual donation limit—from a secret Wisconsin bank account that Henry Lyons, who was eventually convicted of racketeering and grand theft, allegedly used for money laundering. Brown did not report the money on either her financial disclosure statements or her campaign contribution reports. Nor could her office produce any bank records or receipts showing how the money had been spent.
The Federal Election Commission has admonished Brown several times for her inaccurate campaign-spending reports. Her own campaign treasurer quit his post in the mid-Nineties after learning that his name had been forged on some of those reports. Yet the staffer responsible for the forgery went on to become Brown’s chief of staff.
When plaintiffs went to court in February 1996 to challenge Florida’s Third Congressional District for unconstitutional racial gerrymandering, Brown’s campaign spent nearly $18,000 to commission dozens of buses to deliver at least 1,000 of her supporters to the steps of the courthouse, where they staged a “Voting Rights Rally” to “make an important public statement about preserving progress under the Voting Rights Act in securing adequate representation of minorities.” The boundaries of the Third District were ultimately struck down due to their highly irregular shape, but Brown nonetheless retained her congressional seat.
In 1998 Brown’s daughter, Shantrel Brown-Fields—a lawyer and Environmental Protection Agency employee—was given a $50,000 Lexus automobile by Foutanga Sissoko, a Gambian millionaire who was a friend of Corrine Brown. Sissoko at the time was serving a prison term for having bribed a customs officer, and Rep. Brown had been working aggressively to secure Sissoko’s release, pressuring then-U.S. Attorney General Janet Reno to deport the prisoner back to his homeland as an alternative to continued incarceration. Sissoko’s attorney said that the Lexus was originally intended as a gift for the congresswoman, and the millionaire’s brother speculated that the vehicle ultimately was given to the daughter because of U.S. laws barring such gifts to members of Congress. In September 2000 the House Ethics Committee, after investigating both the $10,000 contribution from Henry Lyons and the Lexus from Sissoko, concluded that Brown had “demonstrated, at the least, poor judgment and created substantial concerns regarding both the appearance of impropriety and the reputation of the House.” The Committee dropped the case, however, because it was unable to question certain key witnesses, including the Gambian millionaire.
In 1999, Brown, declaring that “Florida is not yet a color-blind or gender-neutral environment,” expressed bitter opposition to University of California Regent Ward Connerly’s anti-affirmative action campaign in Florida, calling Connerly a “paid carpetbagger” whose efforts represented a threat to Florida’s status as a “diverse state” where the “inclusion” of nonwhites in business and academia was highly valued.
During the 2000 presidential election’s Florida recount controversy, Brown insisted that the voting irregularities under scrutiny discriminated against African-Americans. After George W. Bush was declared the winner, Brown was one of several members of Congress who lobbied the U.S. Senate to block Bush’s election as President. During debate in Congress in July 2004, Brown characterized Bush’s election four years earlier as a “coup d’etat” and charged that Republicans “stole the election.”
At a congressional hearing in 2004, Brown described President Bush’s policy towards Haiti as “racist” and derided the hearing’s administration officials as “a bunch of white men.” When Assistant Secretary of State Roger Noriega, a Mexican-American, objected to being called “white” and “racist,” Brown snapped, “You all look alike to me.”
In May 2004, a congressional staffer from Brown’s office went on a four-day “fact-finding” trip to Havana, Cuba.
In October 2004, “Corrine’s Quick Picks,” the ballot-style endorsement sheets that Brown distributed in bulk before elections, appeared at early voting sites in Florida.
In 2005 Brown became a member the Out-of-Iraq Congressional Caucus.
In June 2007 the organization Citizens for Ethics, which maintains that relatives of congressional representatives should be barred from lobbying for special interests, reported that Brown’s daughter (Shantrel Brown-Fields) was a congressional lobbyist—and that one of her clients was Edward Waters College, for which Rep. Brown had earmarked millions of dollars in federal funding.
In 2011 the Democratic fundraising firm Berger Hirschberg Strategies, which had raised over $500,000 for Brown’s re-election campaign, sued the congresswoman for $44,495 in unpaid bills.
In 2012 Brown’s Congressional District was again redrawn, this time as the majority-black Fifth District. But three years later, District 5 was substantially redrawn when a court ruling struck it down as a gerrymander in violation of Florida’s Fair Districts Amendment. Brown charged that this new map — which split her district between a heavily black section and a Republican-leaning area — violated the federal Voting Rights Act, but in April 2016 the court ruled against her.
In February 2012, the Washington Post reported that between 2005 and 2010, Brown had helped secure $21.9 million of earmarked funding for six clients of Alcalde & Fay, the lobbying firm where her daughter was a partner.
A large share of Brown’s campaign contributions over the years came from labor unions, including such notables as AFSCME, the SEIU, the Teamsters, and the American Association for Justice (formerly known as the Association of Trial Lawyers of America). Moreover, EMILY’s List consistently endorsed Brown’s political campaigns.
In March 2016, the U.S. House Committee on Ethics announced that it had opened an investigation of Brown, just weeks after Tom Rust, the director of One Door for Education Inc., an unregistered charity with ties to Brown, had pleaded guilty to fraud charges and agreed to cooperate with federal prosecutors. Brown declared herself “clean” of any wrongdoing but would not publicly discuss the the specifics of the case. “The goal is to take me out,” she told News4Jax when asked about the investigation. “I realize that…. They’re all together. The goal is to get rid of Corrine Brown.”
On July 7, 2016, Brown was indicted on public corruption charges. According to an Orlando Sentinel report that day: “Prosecutors say One Door’s director, Carla Wiley, presented her organization as an education charity starting in 2011 but never obtained tax-exempt status or filed state or federal tax returns, even as it solicited about $800,000 in donations. Between 2012 and 2016, as Wiley withdrew or transferred to her own accounts more than $140,000, the group issued just two checks totaling $1,200 for charitable purposes. While documents in Wiley’s case didn’t mention Brown by name, prosecutors alleged that $150,000 in charity funds had been used for events hosted by or in the honor of an unnamed public official, dubbed ‘Person A.’ Several details in Wiley’s plea suggested Person A is Brown.” Federal authorities charged that Brown, Wiley, and Brown’s former chief of staff, Elias “Ronnie” Simmons, had spent approximately $200,000 of One Door’s money on such items as National Football League tickets, concert tickets, plane tickets, automobile repairs, and luxury vacations and other lavish events. Brown blamed her indictment on racism, saying: “I guess I’m a black woman with a mouth.”
When Brown sought re-election to her House of Representatives seat in 2016, she was defeated in the Democratic primary by former state senator Al Lawson.
On May 18, 2017, Brown was convicted on seven counts of wire fraud, five counts of mail fraud, one count of scheming to conceal material facts, three tax fraud charges, and one count of obstructing IRS laws. On December 3, 2017, she was sentenced to five years in prison. She began her prison term in December 2018.
For an overview of Brown’s voting record on key issues during her years in Congress, click here.