Thursday, October 29, 2020

Jacksonville City Councilmembers fraud case – Who will flip first?

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As court-appointed attorneys begin sifting through 25,000 pages of evidence against the two Jacksonville City Council members indicted on fraud and money laundering charges, legal experts say it’s only a matter of time before one of them agrees to testify against the other.

Katrina Brown and Reggie Brown, who are not related to each other, entered not guilty pleas Monday to dozens of federal charges connected to a barbecue startup funded by city and federal taxpayer money.

Legal experts told the I-TEAM that the name of the game in these cases is often to be the first defendant to cooperate with prosecutors.

Attorney Gene Nichols said if history is any indication, one of the Browns may soon have a change of tune.

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“You may commit crimes as teams, but once somebody ends up with the potential of going to jail, there is no ‘I” in the word team. It’s all about yourself,” Nichols said. “I will be very surprised if one of them does not flip.”

Nichols, who is not affiliated with the case but has tried cases in federal court, says the benefit of cooperation is the hope of a reduced sentence.

That’s what happened in the fraud case against former U.S. Rep. Corrine Brown. Her chief of staff, Ronnie Simmons, and the founder of a charity used for laundering money, Carla Wiley, each got reduced sentences for their roles in the scheme after cooperating with prosecutors and testifying against the congresswoman.

Corrine Brown, who rolled the dice and went to trial, was found guilty and got the stiffest penalty of the three: five years in prison.

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Other than limiting potential prison time, a defendant may take other things into account before deciding to cooperate with prosecutors.

“Every defendant is going to first think about their family and whether or not they can afford going to jail,” Nichols said. “Who would have to testify and who is financially impacted?”

Digging through data released by the Department of Justice, the I-TEAM found that over the last two decades, 22,269 people were charged in public corruption cases and prosecutors secured 19,969 convictions.

For the moment, Katrina Brown and Reggie Brown are presumed innocent. Nichols said that at this stage in the legal process, the federal government is wholly confident there is enough evidence to convict them both. He’s sometimes seen clients make a deal even if they thought they weren’t guilty in order to show they cooperated and hope that translates to less prison time. He said accepting responsibility is a big part of the federal court process.

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