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Posted: April 30, 2017

Donated laptops may have been backed by Corrine Brown campaign funds, through a staffer’s company

Now-former Congresswoman Corrine Brown at the federal courthouse with her lawyer and supporters
Action News Jax
Now-former Congresswoman Corrine Brown at the federal courthouse with her lawyer and supporters

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By Stephanie Brown

Jacksonville, FL —

One of the money trails prosecutors are following in the federal fraud trial of now-former Congresswoman Corrine Brown deals with funds solicited for computers for middle school students. 

Multiple donors say they were asked by Brown to fund the project, but the money that was used traced back to Brown’s campaign group, according to evidence presented by prosecutors so far. 

FULL COVERAGE: Federal fraud trial of now-former Congresswoman Corrine Brown

The project was part of an initiation in to a service organization called The Links, according to Ingrid Burch, who was behind the project. She says Brown joined around the same time as her, in mid-2013. 

Burch bought 33 laptop from the Duval County surplus, paying the $1,420 with her own money. She submitted to be reimbursed for the purchase, but could only find receipts for $1,350 of the $1,420. She added in her testimony that the laptops were refurbished, but basic, and that the service project then additionally funded software and accessories for the computers. While she didn’t say how much the additional outfitting cost or where that money came from, the estimated project cost detailed in information she worked up about the project pinned the estimated cost at $5,000 overall. 

Burch says she submitted the receipts to someone who worked with Brown, because Brown had found a donor to cover the expense- something Burch says they were “blessed” to have. Burch also sent information she worked up about the project, which spoke about encouraging minority youth- specifically 6th grade girls at Eugene Butler- to find their “intellectual purpose” by having a laptop to use at home to support their learning. 

She asked to be reimbursed by May 24, 2013. Just ahead of that, Burch says she picked up Brown at the airport, and Brown said she had a check for Burch, but it had been made out to the wrong person by mistake. On May 24, 2013, Burch says she got a check for $1,420, although she doesn’t remember who gave it to her. The check was written by The Alexander Agency- a group Burch has no knowledge of. 

The Alexander Agency is associated with longtime Brown staffer Vonn Alexander. Prosecutors showed not just the check in question that went to Burch, but a check from Friends of Corrine Brown to The Alexander Agency for the same amount- $1,420- that was written the day prior. The memo line on the check from Friends of Corrine Brown was “laptops”. 

One the same day Friends of Corrine Brown wrote the check to The Alexander Agency, Friends of Corrine Brown made out another check- for $1,350- to Corrine Brown herself. Prosecutors pointed out that amount is the same as what Burch submitted for reimbursement because of the missing receipt. The memo line on that check was “refund”. While being questioned by prosecutors, Burch says she didn’t believe Brown had put any money toward the laptops, although there was no mention of who funded the software and accessories. 

During cross examination, Brown’s attorney had Burch confirm that she was, in fact, reimbursed for the money she had put out, and that the students had received the laptops. 

One email chain shows Brown’s Chief of Staff Ronnie Simmons had tried to run the donation for the computers through another way. 

When Jessica Lazzara Wynne started working with her family’s Foundation, one of her first tasks was ensuring the organizations they were donating to were all 501(c)(3) groups. In this process, she learned One Door was not registered, and reached out to Simmons- who is an alleged co-conspirator who’s already pleaded guilty in this case. 

An email chain between Lazzara Wynne and Simmons in June 2013 showed Lazzara Wynne’s father had committed to the Congresswoman that he would pay $5,000 for the computers for The Links. The email indicates Brown had told Lazzara Wynne she had paid for the computers and was seeking reimbursement. 

Lazarra Wynne told Simmons the Foundation would only donate to a 501(c)(3), though, and Lazzara Wynne had previously determined One Door was not properly registered- so they would not write the check either to Brown or One Door. Simmons responded by telling her to make the check out to the Community Rehabilitation Center Foundation. Lazzara Wynne says she didn’t know what the CRC was or how money donated there would help fund the computer program. They ultimately did not write the check. 

As the defense continues to put the blame on Simmons, Lazzara Wynne agreed that Brown herself was not involved in the communication on where to make the check out to. Her father also said in prior testimony that they did not communicate to Brown when they discovered One Door was not a registered non-profit, speaking instead to Simmons. 

What was not mentioned during this questioning was any money from One Door For Education, which is the group Brown and a few others represented as a charity to solicit more than $800,000 in donations, but the government argues was actually used for personal expenses and lavish events. Burch says she didn’t know about One Door at the time. 

Others say they donated to One Door for computers or iPads, although that hasn’t been linked to this project. One example is Stephen Bittel, who’s $5,000 contribution to One Door was invoiced for “annual student computer drive”. 

The service project for The Links is not the only time The Alexander Agency has come up in the testimony so far. Another instance deals with a commemorative edition of Onyx magazine featuring Brown on the cover. The magazine says it was funded by Friends of Corrine Brown, but prosecutors say the money actually came through One Door donors. 

Don Miller, the Director of Government Affairs for Picerne Development Corporation, says he tried to talk his boss, Robert Picerne, out of giving for the magazine. Ultimately, prosecutors showed a $5,000 invoice from the company to Onyx magazine for 20,000 copies. 

The check that Richard Lipsky wrote for $10,000, though, was ultimately made to pay to The Alexander Agency. 

Lipsky said he and a driver picked up Brown and her daughter Shantrel at the airport one day, and Brown showed him the magazine while asking for support to complete it. Lipsky agreed to contribute $10,000, and wrote a check with the memo line “printing”, but left the pay to line blank. He says he did that because Brown wasn’t sure who to make it out to at the time and told him that she would figure it out. 

Alexander is expected to testify Monday. 

WOKV is inside of the courtroom through these proceedings. Continue to check wokv.com for frequent updates.


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