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Ethics panel calls off Rep. Brown inquiry

The panel says there is insufficient evidence to determine if Corrine Brown violated any rules.

By BILL ADAIR

© St. Petersburg Times, published September 22, 2000


WASHINGTON -- The House ethics committee said Thursday that Rep. Corrine Brown demonstrated "poor judgment" and gave "the appearance of impropriety" in her dealings with an African millionaire, but the committee has called off its investigation of the Jacksonville Democrat because of difficulty tracking down key witnesses.

The committee said there was insufficient evidence to prove that Brown broke congressional rules when she stayed at a Miami condominium owned by West African businessman Foutanga Sissoko, and when her daughter accepted a $50,000 luxury car from his chief financial officer.

The committee said the decision to call off the investigation "was due in large part to the fact that key witnesses who had actual knowledge of the events . . . were beyond the reach of the committee's subpoena power and could not be compelled to give testimony."

Both Sissoko and his chief financial officer, Karim Pouye, are in Africa, where they are not subject to U.S. subpoenas. Pouye is thought to be in Senegal and Sissoko in Mali. Sissoko is being sought by a bank in the United Arab Emirates, which alleges he stole more than $240-million in a bizarre scheme involving black magic.

The ethics investigation of Brown was prompted by stories in the St. Petersburg Times that showed her daughter Shantrel, a lawyer at the Environmental Protection Agency, had received a Lexus automobile from Pouye in 1997. The gift came just weeks after Rep. Brown led an aggressive lobbying campaign with the Clinton administration to have Sissoko released from a U.S. prison, where he was serving time for a bribery case.

The full committee said in a statement Thursday that it had accepted a recommendation from its subcommittee handling the Brown case. The panel did not obtain enough evidence to meet the committee's standards of proof, it said.

However, the statement was sharply critical of Brown.

It said the subcommittee "does believe Rep. Brown's actions and associations in connection with Sissoko demonstrated, at the least, poor judgment and created substantial concerns regarding both the appearance of impropriety and the reputation of the House of Representatives."

Brown and her daughter have denied there was any link between the congresswoman's lobbying, the $50,000 car and the congresswoman's frequent stays in Sissoko's 25th-floor condo in Miami.

In a deposition earlier this year, Brown said that she had never received any gifts from Sissoko and that she had reimbursed him for the summer 1997 condo stays.

In a statement Thursday, Brown said, "For more than a year, I have looked forward to the day when this matter would be put to rest, and I am grateful this day has finally come."

But she has refused to discuss the case in detail with reporters. When two Times reporters tried to question her about the case in 1998, she tried to have them arrested.

The committee's decision gives Brown a political boost just seven weeks before Election Day. She is facing a well-funded challenge from Jennifer Carroll, a retired Navy officer. Carroll has raised about $550,000, compared with $360,000 for Brown.

With the ethics case closed, Brown can focus more on her campaign theme that she has been successful at bringing federal money to her district, which stretches from Jacksonville to Orlando. The ethics questions were raised before the 1998 election, but Brown still won with about 55 percent of the vote.

Carroll said Thursday that Brown has not been cleared of the allegations. "This committee has gone as far as it can go. But the evidence has not been totally presented."

She said Brown's "friends in Africa" could have come to the U.S. to testify in the case if the charges were baseless. "Obviously, they have something to hide."

The committee said its statement Thursday "constitutes the committee's concluding action and statement regarding this matter." That indicates the committee will not be issuing a report as it has for previous cases.

Gary Ruskin, director of the Congressional Accountability Project, a group affiliated with Ralph Nader, said the committee should publish its report.

"Because there's no report, it's impossible to tell whether this is another typically slipshod investigation by the House ethics committee," Ruskin said.

"What's the evidence? Citizens deserve to have that. Why are committee members hiding the evidence?"

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