May 12, 2017
Former Rep. Corrine Brown (D-FL) was found guilty of fraud and tax evasion in federal court Thursday for using money from an unregistered nonprofit, One Door for Education, to pay for personal expenses and lavish events. Testimony at her trial showed in detail how the former congresswoman often used her position to solicit funds for the group. It takes a certain type of politician to use a fake charity to line his or her own pockets, but testimony from One Door’s donors is full of broadly applicable lessons about money in politics, providing an inside look at how special interest donors use money to court favor.
Here are four insights from the trial:
Special interest donors use their contributions to curry favor with politicians.
Testimony from industry-tied donors to One Door was revealing, if not surprising. Tandy Bondi, the sister-in-law of Florida Attorney General Pam Bondi and a cruise industry lobbyist, helped orchestrate a $25,000 contribution from a cruise industry-tied PAC to One Door. She told the court the group had an interest in giving to then-Rep. Brown because her district included a port. A second donor alluded to then-Rep. Brown’s position on the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee to explain his $5,000 donation to One Door. “I was involved in transportation at the time,” Ed Burr said. Dr. Richard Lipsky “solicited Brown’s favor as a member of the Veterans’ Affairs Committee,” through contributions to One Door, according to Florida Politics.
Special interests use charitable funds to try to gain political influence.
Political action committees contributed almost half a billion dollars to candidates last cycle, but the total amount of money special interests spent wooing politicians was surely greater. Husein Cumber, an executive with transportation and real estate company Florida East Coast Industries, testified that he authorized a contribution to One Door because of then-Rep. Brown’s position on the House Transportation committee. But the money didn’t come from a corporate account or company PAC. It came from the company’s “charitable giving program.” “She said she’d be very appreciative if we made that donation,” Cumber said.
Donors don’t necessarily care where their money ends up.
Before it all came crashing down, then-Rep. Brown and her associates raised more than $800,000 for One Door, much of the money coming from industry donors. One donor, Dr. Lipsky, cut a $10,000 check to help then-Rep. Brown pay for a magazine issue honoring her, leaving the “pay to” line blank. A second donor, Steve Halverson, president and CEO of construction firm Haskell, testified that he raised money for then-Rep. Brown from several other CEOs, turning the checks over to then-Rep. Brown’s consultant with payee lines yet to be filled in.
And sometimes donors get left holding the bag.
Attending a Congressional Black Caucus reception for then-Rep. Brown that he had helped fund, Dr. Lipsky was surprised to find himself tapped for an extra $4,290 on site. “Somebody was supposed to pay the caterers,” Dr. Lipsky was told, but “they left early.”