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Rep. Brown explains check from Lyons

By BILL ADAIR and MONICA DAVEY

© St. Petersburg Times, published July 28, 1998


JACKSONVILLE -- On the day that Rep. Corrine Brown tried to end a controversy over a $10,000 check she received from Baptist leader Henry J. Lyons, the House ethics committee disclosed it is questioning Brown about a broader range of ethical concerns. Brown, D-Jacksonville, acknowledged Monday that she has been questioned about the check by the committee and said she had been cleared. But the committee has yet to announce any finding and made clear that its inquiry goes beyond the $10,000.

A Ministry Questioned: more coverage from the pages of the St. Petersburg Times.

Related links
• A story on Monday's news conference from the Florida Times-Union in Jacksonville.
• Rep. Brown's official Web page for the House of Representatives.

"The committee asked her questions based on the various newspaper stories," said chief counsel Ted Van Der Meid, who would not elaborate. The St. Petersburg Times has reported that Brown received a $10,000 check from a secret bank account that prosecutors say Lyons controlled.

The Times also has reported that Brown's daughter received a $50,000 car from a business associate of West African millionaire Foutanga Sissoko after Brown led an aggressive lobbying effort to keep Sissoko from going to prison. The ethics committee is conducting an initial fact-finding phase and must decide whether to issue a statement clearing Brown or appoint a subcommittee to pursue an investigation.

During a tense news conference at a Jacksonville hotel Monday, Brown produced a document she said should put an end to questions about the check from Lyons. The document indicates that Brown converted Lyons' check into a second check made payable to Pameron Tours bus company for transportation to a 1996 rally Brown organized in Tallahassee. Brown did not report Lyons' check on financial disclosure statements or on campaign contribution reports. She said that did not violate rules because the money was used for a rally to protest a legal challenge to the shape and racial makeup of her congressional district.

Corrine Brown displays a copy of the $10,000 check she received from Lyons in Jacksonville on Monday. [AP photo]
"I did not take one dime of the money provided to me by Dr. Lyons," Brown said Monday.

Nearly 50 supporters, including several prominent Jacksonville ministers, cheered as Brown angrily waved a enlarged photocopies of the checks at reporters. "Come on, you all, what does it say?" she demanded. "What does it say?

"Now I've got a question for you, media. What kind of retraction will I get?"

But Brown's news conference left unanswered key questions about the payment from Lyons, who is charged in state and federal court with racketeering and conspiracy:

Why was Lyons' check made out to Brown instead of the bus company?

Was Brown aware that the funds had come from a $500,000 payment prosecutors say Lyons extorted from a Canadian funeral home company?

Was the rally in Tallahassee intended to influence the outcome of Brown's election?

Brown, a three-term Democrat, criticized the Times. She refused to answer questions from Times' reporters. "As long as I'm a member of the U.S. Congress, I will never respond to the St. Petersburg Times," she said. "They have distorted, misled, and purposefully deceived their readers."

Asked by a television reporter about the ethics committee inquiry, Brown said: "I've answered their questions. And you need to know one thing. (Ethics committee members) don't go on rumors or innuendos. They go on facts."

Brown said that she heard "off the record" from the committee two months ago that "this was completed, I didn't do anything wrong." She said she regretted having to hold a news conference when there were so many important issues facing Congress.

Asked by a Times reporter if it was appropriate for her daughter to receive a luxury car, above, from a man for whom Brown lobbied, Brown abruptly ended the news conference. "It's over. It's closed," she said.
"My congressional office is for congressional matters," she said. "You need to know it's not for the bullshit." Although billed as a news conference, it became a campaign rally as supporters shouted their approval. They stepped to the microphone and gave testimonials about Brown. They hugged her. They prayed for her. "I work very hard for my constituents!" Brown shouted. "I do it better than anybody else!"

Brown enjoys such strong support in her district that past ethical problems have had little impact on her re-election campaigns. But she has had difficulty raising money recently, receiving only $12,000 this spring to $31,000 for Republican opponent Bill Randall.

"We want everyone to know that we stand behind Corrine Brown 1,000 percent," said the Rev. F.D. Newbill, pastor of the First Timothy Baptist Church. He said the Times had been unfair to Brown. "All over this country there has been an attack on our African-American leadership," Newbill said. "None of the accurate information (about Brown) has ever been printed."

Brown, who draws some of her strongest support from religious leaders, and Lyons, the National Baptist Convention USA president, have long been allies. In 1994, he donated $1,300 to her campaign. She helped his daughter get a $1,000 scholarship. One of his closest business partners, Fred Demps, once worked for Brown. So when the shape of Brown's district -- a horseshoe spanning Orlando, Jacksonville and Gainesville -- was challenged in federal court during her second term, Lyons was there to help.

In February 1996, a $10,000 check, made payable to "Mrs. Corinne Brown," was drawn on funds from a secret Milwaukee bank account that prosecutors say Lyons and convicted embezzler Bernice Edwards used to launder money. The check listed as remitter: Dr. Henry J. Lyons.

Several days later, Brown converted that check into an "official check" from Barnett Bank. It was payable to Pameron Tours.

On Feb. 19, 1996, as the federal trial over Brown's district began, buses rolled into Tallahassee from all over the state. The rally was billed as a "Voting Rights Rally" about minority representation in Congress. Some in attendance said they felt the rally carried a second message: re-elect Corrine Brown.

Brown's lawyers say the Federal Election Commission has determined money raised and spent on redistricting -- the redrawing of a congressional district's shape -- does not need to be included in campaign spending reports. Whether a campaign-style rally qualifies as a "redistricting activity" is a matter of debate among FEC experts.

Former FEC lawyer Ken Gross says the standard is whether a politician is trying to influence the outcome of an election. If so, it must be reported as a campaign contribution.

If the $10,000 check had appeared in Brown's report, it would have exceeded the $1,000 contribution limit.

Brown always has maintained that the $10,000 paid for 15 Pameron buses ordered for the rally but until Monday her office could offer no proof that was where Lyons' money went. Last week, she said, Barnett Bank was finally able to locate a copy of the "official check" to the bus company.

Said Brown: "We cleared it up." She turned to the reporters: "Now, how do you clear it up?" Although Brown said two months ago that she was "ready to answer any question, any time, about my actions," she refused on Monday to discuss anything other than the Lyons check.

Asked by a Times reporter if it was appropriate for her daughter to receive a luxury car from a man for whom Brown lobbied, Brown abruptly ended the news conference. "It's over. It's closed," she said. Her supporters cheered.


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