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NTSB faults El Faro Captain’s decision making, company oversight in sinking that killed 33 people

National Transportation Safety Board investigators are finding fault in the Alternate Compliance Program inspection protocol, the use of open lifeboats, training and oversight by the El Faro’s owner and operator, the Captain’s decision making, and many other areas, among their findings and recommendations following a more than two year investigation in to the sinking of the Jacksonville cargo ship.

33 people died when El Faro took on water, lost propulsion, and ultimately sank in Hurricane Joaquin.

FULL COVERAGE:The sinking of El Faro

NTSB staff spent all day Tuesday presenting 80 draft findings and 53 draft recommendations, while also fielding questions from Board members. The Board unanimously approved those, although Board Member Bella Dinh-Zarr dissented to an additional finding which said the ship’s officers should have been more forceful in how they communicated deteriorating conditions to the Captain.

They’ve also approved a probable cause for the sinking, which heavily cites El Faro’s Master, Captain Michael Davidson for not avoiding Hurricane Joaquin, failing to use the most recent weather information, and more.

NTSB Board Chairman Robert Sumwalt made it clear from the outset that the investigative staff took on a “herculean effort”, and the work they’ve produced will make a difference.

“This report will be studied by mariners young and old for many years, and I’m confident that this tragedy at sea, and the lessons from this investigation, will help improve safety for future generations of mariners,” he says.

NTSB Investigators gave technical and detailed presentations of Factual Reports they’ve produced through the course of this investigation, all of which raised some serious questions. Investigator-In-Charge Brian Young also presented a video describing the sinking.

El Faro is one of many commercial vessels that are inspected under the Alternate Compliance Program. This allows the ship’s Alternate Class Society- in this case the American Bureau of Shipping- to conduct inspections on behalf of the Coast Guard, in order to better use resources and avoid redundancies.

“Staff believes that the Coast Guard’s Alternate Compliance Program is not effective in ensuring that vessels meet the safety standards required by regulations, and many vessels enrolled in the program are likely to be operating in substandard conditions,” says Young.

ABS tells WOKV they’ve worked closely with the NTSB through this process and will continue to do so.

“While ABS has not yet had the opportunity to review all the NTSB recommendations, ABS supports all recommendations that effectively enhance safety and will continue working with the U.S. Coast Guard on improvements in the Alternate Compliance Program,” says a statement from ABS.

Among the testing that is done, Young is proposing having that go further. With El Faro’s sinking, it’s believed that the severe list led to a loss of suction in the lube oil sump, and ultimately a loss of propulsion. While the ship operated above the minimal required lube oil levels, they were generally below what’s recommended. Investigators believe the crew didn’t know about the vulnerability of the lube oil sump suction with a severe list and were not instructed to alter that to accommodate for expected heavy weather.  NTSB investigators want to increase awareness of design factors like that, while also pushing the testing limitations to determine the minimal operating levels to more extreme conditions, including list.

While there was a loss of propulsion, investigators don’t believe the ship lost power.

FULL COVERAGE: Detailing the NTSB Group Chairman’s Factual Reports

Another factor in the sinking is the amount of water that got on board, contributing to the list. It’s believed water first came in through various openings, but then moved through an open scuttle, although the NTSB has not been able to determine why that scuttle was open. They are now recommending that openings like this be outfitted with remote sensors that would show in a manned area- like on the bridge- whether they are open. The water that got in is believed to have made a large cargo deck more slick, and- when combined with vehicle cargo lashings that did not comply with the company’s lashing manual- investigators believe automobiles were able to break loose, and likely hit the fire main that was improperly guarded, and further precipitated the flow of water through the ship. 

At the Captain’s orders, the crew tried to offset the initial list by transferring ballast, but when the Captain then turned the ship to use wind to help offset the list as well, the totality led to an overcorrection. The list shifted to the other side, where it was apparently never remedied.

An additional vulnerability that allowed water to get in is the ventilation trunks. NTSB investigators found that the ship’s Certificate of Inspection required those to be open, for the purpose of ventilating cargo holds. They also found, however, that those openings were considered to be watertight or weather tight for the purpose of ship stability- and therefore should have been closed at certain times.

Investigators say they don’t believe the crew was aware of this conflict or vulnerability, and water was likely able to get on to the ship through these openings, in the conditions she was facing. A proposed recommendation would outfight all cargo holds with bilge alarms, to more quickly and precisely detect flooding on board.

The weather conditions are a main factor not only in the sinking, but the ability of the crew to survive once the call was made to abandon ship. Investigators do not believe El Faro’s lifeboats were ever launched, and in fact on the Voyage Data Recorder, the Captain can be heard calling for the life rafts to be put in the water.

“If you’re in such extreme conditions, is there any way out at that point?” asked NTSB Member Christopher Hart.

“It was very challenging, but we think the best way to have survived this was to have current equipment, and that would have been enclosed lifeboats, and in particular, the stern-launched lifeboat,” says Jon Furukawa, with the Survival Factors Group.

The open-style lifeboats aboard El Faro are not allowed on more modern ship designs, but they were grandfathered in for the ship. NTSB investigators are recommending all of these vessels be required to have enclosed lifeboats, even the ones that would have to be retrofitted. El Faro underwent a “major conversion” in the 1990s that could have meant their lifeboat system would have needed to be upgraded, but the NTSB staff says it appears that was waived because the ship’s lifeboat system itself wasn’t changed in the major modification. The NTSB believes work done on El Faro in 2005-06 should have been considered a “major conversion” as well, but was not. That also could have required the lifeboat systems be brought in to the modern era.

Their recommendations also include outfitting crew with personal locating beacons and requiring the ship’s EPIRB to transmit location, in order to aid in search and rescue operations. Investigators say they believe the personal locating beacons would cost about $300-$400 each, and a locating EPIRB would be about $800.

In terms of the information transferred by the beacons, there is inconsistency in how the location data is formatted. The NTSB Board was surprised to learn this was an issue that had never been identified  in the past, but staff has put forward a recommendation that would standardize that, and therefore lead to fewer vulnerabilities during the early phases of search and rescue.

AUDIO: El Faro’s Captain describes “marine emergency” in final shoreside communication

The crew may have also been inhibited in their attempt to safely abandon the ship because the Master, Captain Michael Davidson, took too long to muster them, according to the NTSB staff. Mike Kucharski, with the Operations Group, says there were several points where the crew should have been mustered- when flooding was discovered, when the ship lost propulsion, when they were having difficulty with the list, and when the flooding continued to worsen. He says crew could have helped investigate the cause of the flooding and potentially combat it.

“By the time the Captain recognized the ship’s perilious condition and sounded signals to muster and abandon ship, it was too late for the crew to assist and to successfully abandon the vessel,” Kucharski says.

Many of the Captain’s decisions are being questioned by the NTSB staff. Captured on the ship’s Voyage Data Recorder, or black box, are multiple attempts by officers to have Davidson alter El Faro’s course in the hours ahead of the sinking. Davidson turned down those suggestions and- despite receiving multiple calls- did not return to the bridge until a few hours before they ultimately went down.

When asked why Davidson did not heed the warnings from his crew, Carrie Bell with the NTSB’s Human Factors Group said they believe this was because of several factors, including his prior experience with storms in the Alaskan trade and possible overconfidence from having come through risky situations. 

DETAILED LOOK: El Faro’s Voyage Data Recorder transcript

“By not coming to the bridge as the Mates suggested, and by dismissing their suggestions to change course, the Captain missed opportunities to to reassess the situation and alter the voyage plan.  Given the responsibility of this position and the risk of the upcoming weather, it is difficult to explain how the Captain could have been absent from the bridge while the ship sailed in to a hurricane,” Bell says.

The track and intensity forecasts for Hurricane Joaquin were inconsistent and had a large margin of error and there were issues with some of the processed weather information the Captain was relying on taking hours to come through and- in one case- containing outdated information. Despite that, the NTSB believes there was adequate data available to plan for this voyage. The Board said the Captain’s decision to leave on that final voyage with the storm brewing was low risk, but his voyage planning left them heading toward an intersection with the storm from the outset.

Sumwalt questioned the responsibility of the crew in this type of situation to be more forceful in their suggestions. Bell says the focus of investigators was on the need for open communication and mutual respect, which is why one of the recommendations is to provide recurring training on Bridge Resource Management. Nonetheless, Sumwalt offered an additional finding- which was adopted by the Board- which says if the officers had been more forceful and direct in their communication with Davidson, it’s possible he could have assessed the situation differently.

Some family members of the fallen El Faro crew were not happy with the vote.

“For him to say the officers wasn’t aggressive enough trying to get the Captain’s attention, that was ridiculous. I mean, three phone calls when the Captain knows there’s a storm- what Captain wouldn’t come out of their room,” Claudia Shultz, the wife of El Faro’s Chief Mate Steve Shultz, told our partner Action News Jax while at the meeting in Washington DC.

That breakdown in Bridge Resource Management is one of the reasons El Faro’s owner and operator- which both fall under the TOTE organization- have blame as well under the NTSB report. The company failed to enforce some of its manuals and guidelines, did not provide heavy weather assistance or route planning services, inconsistently evaluated key personnel, did not provide enough training, and other problems.

“The company’s lack of oversight in critical aspects of safety management, including gaps in training for shipboard operations in severe weather, denoted a weak safety culture in the company and contributed to the sinking of El Faro,” says the NTSB’s findings.

TOTE says they have fully supported the investigation and are eager to review the NTSB’s final report.

“The investigation was complex. Assessing the large quantities of records and extensive testimony was a daunting task for these investigative teams. We appreciate the  time and effort both the Coast Guard and NTSB investigators expended in their efforts. The TOTE organization will carefully study the final Coast Guard and NTSB reports of investigation once they are formally issued. We as a company intend to learn everything possible from this accident and the resulting investigations to prevent anything similar from occurring in the future. We will also assist both investigative bodies in communicating lessons learned from the accident to the broader maritime industry,” says a statement from a TOTE Spokesperson.

TOTE further says they remain focused on caring for the families of those who died in the sinking and protecting the mariners at sea now.

There are also several factors that have been ruled out as contributing to the sinking, under the draft findings. It’s not believed there was any failure in El Faro’s hull. There is a significant crack that can be seen on the wreckage where she lies now, but investigators believe that was the result of impact with the ocean floor. The ship also lost the bridge and part of the deck, but that’s also believed to have been a result of the sinking, not a cause. 

Additionally, there were five Polish nationals on El Faro performing work to prepare her to convert to the Alaska trade. NTSB investigators say there is no indication the work that riding gang was doing on board contributed to the sinking.

With the NTSB’s investigation done, their attention is shifting to lobbying for change.

“The recommendations we’ve adopted today, if acted upon, will result in a broad range of improvements to the safety or marine transportation. As a result of this investigation we’ve plotted a safer course for future generations of mariners. But it is up to the recipients of these recommendations to make a conscious choice, the right choice, to follow that course,” Sumwalt says.

In all, 29 recommendations have been issued to the US Coast Guard, two to the Federal Communications Commission, one to the National Ocean and Atmospheric Administration, nine to the International Association of Classification Societies, one to the American Bureau of Shipping, one to Furuno Electric Company, and ten to TOTE Services.

FULL LIST: NTSB’s findings and recommendations from their El Faro sinking investigation

These recommendations come in addition to several others already issued by the NTSB as a result of this investigation. Those came out earlier this year, directly addressing issues dealing with the safety of mariners at sea in heavy weather conditions. The NTSB issued those recommendations along with the start of the Atlantic hurricane season.

Florida Democratic Senator Bill Nelson was quick to commit to change.

“The El Faro sinking was a tragedy. The NTSB’s findings clearly show that more can be done to prevent this kind of tragedy from happening again.  These recommendations coupled with the Coast Guard’s investigation set out a clear path for improving safety on our ships,” says a statement from Nelson, who is the top Democrat on the Senate Commerce Committee, which oversees the Coast Guard.

Family members want to make sure the talk will lead to action.

“That’s why I’m so heavily involved coming back a nd forth, talking with the Coast Guard,  NTSB, and whoever else I need to talk to- that this cannot happen again,” Rochelle Hamm, wife of El Faro Able Seaman Frank Hamm, told our partner Action News Jax.

“The Congress has the will to enact these as law.  Words and recommendations is fine, but actions speak louder than words,” Glen Jackson, brother of El Faro Able Seaman Jack Jackson told our partner Action News Jax while at the NTSB meeting.

The NTSB fully participated in three two-week hearing sessions held by a Coast Guard Marine Board of Investigation, which has also been probing the sinking. While the two bodies collaborated through much of the investigation, the NTSB also conducted their own interviews and analysis, and has been operating independently since the last hearing session. 

The MBI has issued its Report of Investigation, which also found fault in the Captain and El Faro’s owner/operator, as well as the American Bureau of Shipping and the Coast Guard itself. The Commandant of the Coast Guard is currently reviewing that ROI to determine which of the recommendations and findings he concurs with and how to create change in those areas. There is no timeline on how long his review will last.

Former Rep. Corrine Brown to appeal convictions, five year sentence

Following through on intent declared during her sentencing, former Northeast Florida Democratic Congresswoman Corrine Brown has filed a notice to appeal.

The notice filed in federal court Monday declares Brown will appeal to the 11th Circuit US Court of Appeals, dealing with the district court’s judgement, sentence, and all pretrial rulings in this case. 

FULL COVERAGE: The case around former Congresswoman Corrine Brown

Brown is also seeking to remain out on bond while this appeal is pending. She was recently sentenced to five years in prison, connected to her 18 fraud-related convictions, but was allowed to voluntarily surrender for that sentence at a date to be determined by the Bureau of Prisons, but no sooner than January 8. 

The motion for release on bond pending appeal says Brown has not had any violations through the time she has been under pretrial services supervision. The motion says the Court has already determined Brown is not likely to flee and does not pose a danger to the community. 

Brown’s appeal will focus on the dismissal of a juror during deliberations, according to the motion. Her defense says this is a question that could be decided in her favor, and therefore the court needs to decide if this substantial question could ultimately result in a new trial or sentence. 

The judge already denied Brown’s motion for a new trial, which also raised the issue of the dismissed juror. While deliberations were underway, a juror contacted the court to express concerns about another juror and statements he had made. That juror was ultimately questioned by the court and said he had been told by the “Holy Spirit” that Brown was not guilty. While he said he believed he was participating in deliberations with the other jurors, the court noted that his comment was made at the outset of deliberations, and he was therefore not following court instructions to avoid reaching a determination until all the evidence and testimony had been vetted by the jury. That juror was replaced with one of the alternates, and the jury then unanimously convicted Brown on 18 charges and acquitted on four. 

The convictions relate to a scheme where Brown, her former Chief of Staff Ronnie Simmons, and the President of the sham charity “One Door For Education” Carla Wiley raised hundreds of thousands of dollars for One Door from donors who thought their money was going to charitable purposes, when in fact, the trio was using it for personal expenses instead. Brown was also found guilty of lying on her financial disclosure forms and tax returns by overreporting charitable contributions and underreporting income. She has maintained her innocence,  claiming she mismanaged her office and her finances, but didn’t intentionally engage in criminal activity.

Both Simmons and Wiley pleaded guilty in connection to this scheme and testified against Brown during her trial. Simmons was sentenced to four years in prison and Wiley to one year and nine months- both were also allowed to voluntarily surrender. The government had recommended leniency as a result of their cooperation.

The defense motion says they have contacted prosecutors, who have indicated they object to Brown being allowed to remain out on bond pending this appeal.

NTSB investigators to bring forward more than 50 safety recommendations from El Faro sinking probe

More than two years after their investigation in to the sinking of cargo ship El Faro began, the National Transportation Safety Board is poised to release their recommendations on how to prevent a tragedy like this from happening again. 

The NTSB has compiled more than 50 proposed recommendations as a result of their investigation, which has totaled some 30,500 hours and $5.6 million. They’re also produced more than 70 findings connected to the sinking- all of which face a vote by the Board on Tuesday. While the exact recommendations won’t be disclosed until the meeting, the NTSB says they deal with the Captain’s actions, currency of weather information, bridge team management, company oversight, damage control plans, and survival craft suitability. 

FULL COVERAGE:The sinking of El Faro

33 people on board El Faro died when the ship went down in Hurricane Joaquin, while traveling from Jacksonville to Puerto Rico. 

GALLERY:Tributes to the El Faro crew

Tuesday’s NTSB meeting will be carried out slightly different than others, because of the volume of information being discussed. Generally, Chairmen of the NTSB groups studying various aspects of transportation incidents will present their reports, and then the Managing Director will read all of the findings, recommendations, and the probable cause of the incident- on which the Board will vote. For Tuesday’s meeting on the sinking of El Faro, findings and recommendations will be presented throughout the Group Chairman’s reports. Probable cause will still be read at the end by the Managing Director. 

The NTSB is making the changes in order to make the meeting easier to follow and more concise. Regardless, the NTSB tells WOKV the meeting is expected to last all day. 

It also may take a little longer than the standard allotment of up to ten days to produce the NTSB’s Final Report after the meeting. That report will have the accident synopsis, as well as what the Board approves. 

From there, the NTSB will advocate for the implementation of their recommendations, as they do with all other cases. What the Board votes on are recommendations, not actual changes. The recommendations could be issued to government entities, industry leaders, professional organizations, manufacturers, or any number of other groups- whoever the NTSB believes is most directly responsible for or able to implement change. 

FULL COVERAGE: In-depth on the NTSB Group Chairman Factual Reports

Because the NTSB is not a regulatory agency, there will not be any blame or liability addressed, or recommendations of penalties for any violations of law or regulations. Instead, they issue these recommendations in an effort to prevent more transportation incidents and save lives. 

El Faro sank in Hurricane Joaquin in October 2015, killing all 33 people on board. The ship took on water and faced engineering issues- including a loss of propulsion- because of the resulting list and efforts to balance the ship out. Cargo is also believed to have been breaking free and shifting both above and below deck, although parties involved dispute the severity and, ultimately, impact that had on the sinking. While the final moments captured by the ship’s Voyage Data Recorder- or black box- capture the Captain calling to abandon ship, investigators don’t believe the lifeboats ever launched. 

AUDIO: El Faro’s Master describes ‘marine emergency’

The NTSB conducted three missions to locate and recover that VDR- it was found on the second mission, but couldn’t be brought up until a third trip, which included deploying specialized salvage equipment. From that VDR, the NTSB produced the longest transcript it has ever assembled, which detailed about 26 hours of audio captured from the bridge. There was other data recovered in the device as well, including location and meteorological conditions. 

The NTSB Group Chairmen’s reports have been released gradually throughout the course of the investigation. WOKV has gone through each in detail to learn the various factors involved in areas like engineering, survival, and human performance. During Tuesday’s meeting, those reports will be expanded on, and the Board will vote on the recommendations surfacing from that investigative work. 

While the NTSB is operating independently at this point and has conducted their own interviews and investigative work since the sinking, they also fully participated in three, two-week hearing sessions conducted in Jacksonville by a Coast Guard Marine Board of Investigation that also probed the sinking. The MBI released its Report of Investigation on October 1, two years after the sinking. The Coast Guard Commandant is currently reviewing the ROI to determine which of the MBI’s recommendations he concurs with and which he does not. From there, the Commandant will order change in areas he controls through the Coast Guard and create plans to achieve the recommendations that require collaborations with other government entities or groups. 

The MBI’s process was also outside of the standard for this investigation- generally the ROI is not public until after the Commandant issues his Final Action Memo. The MBI wanted to promote transparency and provide the public information before that, with no set timeline for when the FAM will be released. 

VOYAGE DATA RECORDER: El Faro’s final hours

The MBI’s work is different than the NTSB in a number of ways, including that they can make recommendations on penalties, and did, in fact, recommended civil penalty action against El Faro’s owner and operator. The MBI Board Chair further confirmed that they would have recommended a negligence complaint against the ship Master’s credentials, had he survived. 

The NTSB has not waited for their investigation to be complete to issue recommendations. With the start of the Atlantic Hurricane season, the NTSB issued several recommendations from their ongoing work on the El Faro sinking, which they believed would be important for promoting the safety of mariners at sea during the storm season. 

WOKV will follow Tuesday’s meeting as the findings, recommendations, and probable cause are discussed and ultimately voted on. Get developing details on Twitter.

Jags Head Coach’s bologna feeds Northeast Florida

While the Jacksonville Jaguars compete this weekend to potentially clinch a spot in the playoffs for the first time in years, the post-game meal habits of the Head Coach has grabbed a lot of the attention instead.

But it’s all for a good cause.

Coach Doug Marrone recently said his go-to post-game meal is a bologna and cheese sandwich. The Beef Checkoff and National Hot Dog and Sausage Council responded earlier this week by sending 100 logs of beef bologna to the team, hoping it would fuel the team in their run for the playoffs. In all, the deli meat haul came to about 350 pounds.

During a Wednesday press conference at EverBank Field, Marrone confirmed he would be donating the bologna to those in need in the Jacksonville area.

The donation went to Feeding Northeast Florida’s warehouse Wednesday and was picked up Thursday by the Daily Manna Serving Center Food Pantry, one of Feeding Northeast Florida’s partner hunger-relief organizations. Daily Manna distributed the bologna donation along with other food today during their weekly food distribution event.

Feeding Northeast Florida says Daily Manna is their largest food distributor, serving the North Riverside community, which they say has some of the highest poverty rates in the city.

The Jaguars themselves are putting Marrone’s taste to good use. “Marroney Bologna” sandwhiches will be sold at several locations in the stadium on Sunday’s game, while supplies last. A portion of the sales will benefit the Jaguars Foundation.

The Jaguars play the Seattle Seahawks at 4:25PM Sunday at EverBank Field. You can watch the game on our partner Fox 30 Action News Jax.

Jacksonville woman charged with child abuse, after fight over deviled eggs

A 52-year-old Jacksonville woman is facing a felony child abuse charge, after a fight involving deviled eggs.

According to the arrest report from the Jacksonville Sheriff's Office, Theresa Grier, is accused of pushing a child victim into a freezer, causing an injury to his shoulder and back area. 

The report says a witness and the victim both told police, Grier was mad that the victim hadn't made any deviled eggs for her, so she did something to ruin the eggs, leading to an argument. At some point during that argument, Grier is accused of pushing the victim. 

However, the reports states that Grier tried to claim that the victim threw a pot of hot water and the eggs at her, and even pushed her, so she pushed back. 

Police say the witness told them that Grier was the aggressor and is a constant issue inside the home.

“Entitlement and greed”: Former Rep. Corrine Brown sentenced to 5 years in prison

The three people involved in a fraud scheme that involved a sham education charity sat within feet of each other in front of a federal judge, but didn’t exchange any words or even looks as the federal judge sentenced each to time in prison.

Former Northeast Florida Democratic Congresswoman Corrine Brown will serve five years, after  being convicted on 18 charges connected to the fraud, which involved soliciting hundreds of thousands of dollars to a sham charity organization and using the money for personal expenses and lavish events instead.  Her two co-defendants both pleaded guilty and testified against Brown. Her former Chief of Staff Ronnie Simmons has been sentenced to four years, and the President of “One Door For Education”- the organization they funneled money through- Carla Wiley, will serve one year and nine months. All three had been hoping to avoid any time in prison outright.

The judge is allowing the co-defendants to voluntarily surrender for their prison term at a date to be determined by the Bureau of Prisons, but no earlier than January 8th. Until then, the travel of Simmons and Wiley is restricted to Virginia, Maryland, and Washington DC, and Brown is restricted to the Middle District of Florida, unless they get approval from pre-trial officers. They will also surrender their passports and will report to pre-trial services. The government did not object to any of these terms.

All three additionall will face supervised release after their prison terms, as well as forfeiture and restitution totaling hundreds of thousands of dollars- which the Judge ordered be paid in $250 per month installments upon release from prison.

FULL COVERAGE:  The federal fraud case of former Congresswoman Corrine Brown

WOKV has been following this case since early last year, when Wiley pleaded guilty to conspiracy to commit wire fraud and agreed to cooperated with the government as they continued to build their case. In July, Brown and Simmons were indicted- Brown on 22 charges and Simmons on 19.  Earlier this year, Simmons pleaded guilty to conspiracy to commit mail and wire fraud and theft of government funds, and also agreed to cooperate with the prosecution. Brown then faced trial in May, and was convicted on 18 charges, including conspiracy to commit mail and wire fraud, aiding and abetting mail fraud, aiding and abetting wire fraud, scheme to conceal material facts, corrupt endeavor to obstruct and impede the due administration of internal revenue law, and filing false tax returns.

Wiley founded One Door with good intentions, but it was essentially dormant until Simmons- her boyfriend at the time- took control. Judge Timothy Corrigan says one of the victims in this case is One Door itself, because financial records show more than $800,000 moved through the organization, but it didn’t go to the charitable purpose donors expected.

“Just think of the good that could have been done with that money,” says Corrigan, adding that the defendants “systematically looted” the funds.

Wiley’s theft came through online transfers from One Door’s bank account, which were conducted separately from the scheme involving Brown and Simmons. Corrigan says there  were no indications Wiley would have stopped had she not been caught, and she was also aware of the theft by Brown and Simmons and did nothing to stop it.

“A sentence of probation would not be sufficient to account for such audacious and long-term misconduct,” he says.

Simmons would withdraw money from One Door’s account and deposit it in to Brown’s account or give her cash, according to the case that was presented. He would also sometimes give Brown blank, signed One Door checks, and took One Door money for his own use as well. Simmons and others testified that the transactions involving One Door’s account were performed at Brown’s direction, and prosecutors say Brown abused the public’s trust and duped donors. Corrigan, with his sentencing, agreed.

“One Door For Education was operated as a criminal enterprise by Carla Wiley, Ronnie Simmons, and Corrine Brown,” Corrigan says.

Simmons additionally admitted to getting his sister a salary from the House of Representatives, even though she did little to no actual work. Simmons further took some of the money that his sister was receiving through the ghost job. All these factors considered, the judge actually recommended Simmons for a sentence above what his advisory guidelines called for.

Brown was separately found guilty of lying on her financial disclosure forms and tax returns by underreporting income she received from One Door and overreporting her donations to charity, including claiming donations to One Door.

“Having routinely converted One Door money for her own personal use, Ms. Brown turned around and falsely state on her tax returns that she had actually donated money to One Door for which she claimed a substantial charitable deduction. Brazen barely describes it,” Corrigan says.

Brown continues to maintain her innocence, saying she was duped by Simmons and mismanaged her office and personal finances but never intended to engage in criminal acts. During her sentencing hearing a few weeks ago, she asked for “mercy and compassion” from the Judge. Her defense asked the Judge to consider her history of public service, age, lack of criminal history, and other factors in his sentencing.

But Corrigan found Brown and Simmons abused their positions and traded on Brown’s position and the trust people had in her, for their own financial benefit.

“The public had a right to expect that Ms. Brown, as an elected member of Congress, and Mr. Simmons, her longtime Chief of Staff, would not abuse their positions of public trust and responsibility,” Corrigan says.

Simmons and Wiley both accepted responsibility in front of the Judge and apologized for their actions. The government recommended leniency as a result of their substantial cooperation and other factors. While the judge noted that as significant, he did not think justice would be achieved with any of the defendants avoiding prison outright. He did also find it notable that Brown continued to not accept responsibility.

“While Ms. Brown is of course free to maintain her innocence, because she stands before the Court at sentencing unrepentant, she cannot be accorded the same sentencing considerations as someone who accepts responsibility for her wrongful action, expresses remorse, and promises to make amends,” he says.

Brown’s attorney says they plan to not only appeal, but ask that she remain out on bond pending that appeal.

Simmons and Wiley both have the right to appeal their sentences, but neither have indicated if they will do that.

Despite these ongoing legal problems, Brown has continued to draw in supporters. Corrigan says he has received “hundreds” of letters in support of Brown, and that he read every one in his consideration of her sentence. 

When the courtroom doors opened Monday for the sentencing pronouncement, there were dozens of people waiting to get in, and the courtroom itself filled up within minutes. An overflow courtroom was also open, as it has been through the trial and many of the proceedings.

The US Attorney’s Office declined to comment about today’s sentencing pronouncement. The FBI Jacksonville has issued a statement  Special Agent in Charge Charles P. Spencer.

"It is incredibly disappointing that an elected official, who took an oath year after year to serve others, would exploit the needs of children and abuse the charitable hearts of constituents to advance her own personal and political agendas, and deliver them with virtually nothing. I am proud of the exceptional work of the special agents, analysts and support personnel who spent countless hours following the money trail in this case. Their work is some of the most complex, tedious, and significant work we do for the American public. It is an exceptionally difficult task, but rooting out public corruption is a priority for which the FBI will continue to dedicate the resources necessary to investigate, because the impact on everyday people is real. We thank our law enforcement partners at the IRS-CI and U.S. Attorney’s Office for their efforts to hold Brown and her associates accountable for their inexcusable actions.”

This is a developing story that will be updated through the day. Get frequent updates on 104.5FM/AM 690 and on Twitter.

El Faro families provide feedback following Coast Guard Marine Board of Investigation recommendations

As the Coast Guard Commandant continues his review of recommendations put forward by a Marine Board of Investigation after their two year probe of the sinking of El Faro, we’ve confirmed there are dozens of comments from interested parties that have also been brought forward.

WOKV first told you back in October when, on the two year commemoration of the cargo ship going down in Hurricane Joaquin, the MBI issued its Report of Investigation that included 31 safety recommendations for how to prevent a tragedy like this in the future. The ROI also recommended four administrative changes and civil penalty action against the cargo ship’s operator.

FULL COVERAGE: The sinking of El Faro

Since then, the Coast Guard Commandant has been reviewing the ROI to determine which recommendations he concurs with, which he agrees with a caveat, and which he does not support. Of those he concurs with, the Commandant will then order change in areas he controls and create a plan for action among those he does not. All of those changes will be outlined in his Final Action Memo.

WOKV has now confirmed that, in addition to the work of the investigators, the Commandant has received 59 comments to also weigh in his review.

During the month after the ROI was released, the Coast Guard accepted comments from parties wanting to submit feedback. A Coast Guard Spokesperson says 20 comments were received from family members of the 33 people who died in the sinking, and 39 comments came from “Parties In Interest”- which are a few organizations that were designated by the MBI to have a stake in their probe. The content of these comments won’t be public until the Commandant’s FAM is released, but a Coast Guard Spokesperson says they are  being reviewed before any final decision is made.

“Although there is no specific timeframe for the release of the FAM, it is of the highest priority for the service; the Coast Guard is eager to move forward with the lessons learned and take actions to improve safety at sea,” says Coast Guard Spokesperson Lieutenant Amy Midgett.

When the ROI was released, some family members expressed intentions to submit comments, telling us they want to make sure the Coast Guard remembers the human toll left by the sinking. Those family members said their priority was ensuring there would be change after these deaths, so that 33 lives were not lost in vain.

The recommendations from the MBI deal with a wide range of areas- oversight, ship design, safety equiptment, crew training, weather forecast products, and more. The ROI found the ship’s proximity to Hurricane Joaquin was the key factor in the sinking, but the Coast Guard, El Faro’s Master Captain Michael Davidson, the owner/operator TOTE, and the surveyor/Alternate Class Society the American Bureau of Shipping all share responsibility.

The National Transportation Safety Board is releasing their own probable cause, findings, and recommendations later this month. The MBI and NTSB cooperated through much of the investigation, which included producing the NTSB’s longest ever transcript of a Voyage Data Recorder, or black box. The investigative groups broke to finalize their work independently earlier this year.

FDOT: Traffic shift coming to I-95 South on Fuller Warren

Heads up drivers if you cross over the Fuller Warren bridge on I-95 south, a traffic shift is coming your way on December 4th. 

The southbound lanes will shift to the inside of the Fuller Warren Bridge beginning at the Park Street ramp, and go back to its normal configuration after the exit ramp to San Marco Boulevard. The Florida Department of Transportation says they expect the shift to remain in place for about two years, but that could change. 

It’s part of the Your10&95 interchange operational improvements project and the shift is needed to create a work zone allowing crews to begin expansion work. 

The Fuller Warren Bridge will be adding an additional lane in each direction along with a Shared Use Path (SUP), which will be constructed on the southbound side of the bridge parallel to traffic lanes. It will be for pedestrians and bicyclists and will connect Riverside and San Marco communities. 

This project started off in May and FDOT is expecting it to wrap up in the summer of 2020. 

Recap of most expensive Atlantic hurricane season on record 

The long Atlantic Hurricane Season is finally coming to a close.  This was the most active season for US landfall since 2005.  

Action News Jax Chief Meteorologist Mike Buresh says it was the most expensive season on record, at more than $202 billion in damage.

There were 17 named storms, 10 hurricanes, 6 major hurricanes (Cat. 3 or higher). 

PODCAST:  Mike Buresh recaps the 2017 hurricane season and the record that were broken

BLOG:  Mike Buresh daily updates during the Atlantic Hurricane Season

Northeast Florida will remember Hurricane Irma’s impact for years.  The hurricane began as a strong tropical wave that moved off the coast of Africa Aug. 27th and was upgraded to a tropical storm on the 30th, then to a hurricane on Aug. 31st.

Irma plowed into the Northern Lesser Antilles as a Cat. 5 hurricane - the strongest hurricane to ever hit the Windward Islands. From there the storm gained just enough latitude while moving west/northwest to keep the eye north of Puerto Rico and Hispaniola before bending a little southwest and plowing across the north coast of Cuba.

The landfall weakened the hurricane for a while but the warm water of the Florida Straits helped to restrengthen Irma to a Cat. 4 before the first U.S. landfall in the Keys on Sun., Sept. 10th.

The next landfall was on the Florida mainland at Marco Island as a Cat. 3, then a move north up the spine of Florida before bending more northwest and finally become a remnant low Mon., Sept. 11th.

“I humbly ask for mercy and compassion”: Former Rep. Corrine Brown pleads with judge as prosecutors seek up to nine years in prison

For prosecutors, this is a case that makes a statement that public corruption will not stand.

“Imprisonment in this case is unequivocally necessary,” says Assistant US Attorney A. Tysen Duva.

But in the eyes of the defense, a longtime Congresswoman- Corrine Brown- needs to be credited for her decades of public service.

“If you balance this offence with all of the good that she has done, it doesn’t just outweigh it, it substantially outweighs it,” says Brown’s attorney James Smith III.

FULL COVERAGE: The federal fraud case of former Congresswoman Corrine Brown

16 character witnesses presented before US District Judge Timothy Corrigan during the sentencing hearing for the now-former Northeast Florida Democratic Representative. For some, Brown was the godmother to a child, to others she was a tireless public servant, to still others she was an inspiration.

“Devoted, faithful, committed,” says Bishop Kelvin Cobaris, the President of the African American Council of Christian Clergy, in central Florida.

“She means the absolute world to me,” says a longtime friend of Brown.

“It was not just saving people’s homes, she was saving people’s lives,” says Neighborhood Assistance Cooperation of America founder and CEO Bruce Marks.

Corrigan says he’s also received likely more than 100 letters about Brown’s case, 99% of which were in support of her and pleading for leniency in her sentencing, as the defense seeks probation.

“The sentence that we are asking for is extraordinary, but that sentence is being asked for on behalf of someone who’s extraordinary and has lived an extraordinary life,” Smith says.

But prosecutors have now confirmed they’re recommending Corrigan adopt what the advisory sentencing guidelines call for in this case- up to nine years in prison. If the Court seeks to give Brown a lighter sentence, the government wants her to serve no less than five years.

“This was a significant criminal case,” Duva says.

Duva says Brown obstructed justice during the trial proceedings through several statements she made while testifying in her own defense.  He says she improperly shifted blame to others like her CPA, denied knowledge about the fraud scheme which prosecutors say she had, and gave explanations for cash payments that didn’t make sense.

“Corrine Brown committed crimes on that witness stand. She lied for hours on end,” Duva says.

Corrigan says this is something he plans to very carefully consider, after Smith raised an objection to classifying any of Brown’s testimony as obstruction of justice.

“Just because a person testifies at trial and is convicted, doesn’t mean they committed perjury,” he says.

Duva also read several statements Brown has made pre-indictment, post-indictment, and post-verdict, criticizing the justice system, implying she was being targeted for political or racial reasons, and suggesting the jury was tampered with.

“Just totally ludicrous and it makes no sense,” Duva says.

Smith asked Corrigan to understand that Brown grew up in a different time and under different circumstances, where racism exsited and it was never thought that an African American woman who did not come from an elite background could rise to Congress. He implored Corrigan not to sentence her based on those statements.

“Sometimes, as a 71-year-old black woman, she’s reminded of the scars she’s gained by fighting for all of us,” Smith says.

Smith also told the court he objects to much of the Pre-Sentence Report that was put together by Brown’s Probation Officer, because Brown still maintains her innocence and, as such, does not concur with the facts that are laid out. That objection was preserved for appeal.

Brown did address the judge herself, chiefly thanking family and supporters for their continued support and prayers.

“I am sorry that you have to be here today to see me in this situation. I have always tried to protect my name and reputation, I would never imagine that one day I would be in court to ask people to speak on my behalf. I have learned from this unfortunate turn of events that too many times I have trusted without verifying. In hindsight I wish that I had been more diligent in overseeing my personal and professional life,” she says.

She told the judge she has worked to help people, and public service has been an honor and priviledge.

“I humbly ask for mercy and compassion,” Brown says.

The government says the real tragedy and victim in this case is all the money that could have been used for charitable purposes, if Brown followed through on her promises to donors.

“Throughout, it was all about raising scholarship money for kids, and that never happened,” Duva says.

Brown was convicted in May on 18 federal charges for her role in soliciting donations to a sham charity and using the money instead on personal expenses. The charges also include that Brown lied on tax returns and financial disclosure forms by underreporting her income and overreporting charitable contributions.

Corrigan heard arguments today, but will not issue the sentence order for Brown or her two co-defendants until December 4th

“Judges are humans too, and all I can do is the best I can do, and I will do the best I can do,” he says.

Brown’s former Chief of Staff Ronnie Simmons and the President of the sham charity money was funneled through Carla Wiley both pleaded guilty and testified against Brown at her trial. They had their sentencing hearing Wednesday, which established advisory guidelines that could have Wiley serve between one year nine months and two years three months, with Simmons potentially serving between two years nine months and three years five months. Both expressed remorse during their statements to Corrigan.

While Corrigan has the advisory sentencing guidelines for all three defendants, he will also weigh other factors, and has discretion to impose the sentences he sees as appropriate in each case.

Smith is also disputing what the government has valued as loss associated with this case. Among his objections is that prosecutors claimed around $330,000 used on events was loss in this case, because the people who donated thought their money would benefit charitable purposes. The defense says the events did happen, so claiming the money is improper. Attorneys for Brown, Simmons, Wiley, and the government have been asked to try to work through their differences on loss and forfeiture sums, and must submit any outstanding objections by next week.

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