Suspended Jacksonville City Councilwoman Katrina Brown is expected, at this writing, to be back in federal court this week. Brown and fellow suspended councilor Reggie Brown (unrelated), are accused of a 38-count conspiracy to defraud, say federal prosecutors. The pair allegedly skimmed hundreds of thousands of dollars from a Small Business Administration-backed loan provided to Katrina Brown’s family barbecue sauce plant. Among the dozens of charges are wire fraud, mail fraud, money laundering and so on.
Since she was elected to the Council in 2015, the BBQ sauce plant has been at least a background story. City incentives to the tune of $600,000 weren’t providing ROI, leading to suits and eventual judgments against her family business. The FBI and other agencies coordinated a raid of the facility late in 2016. That evidentiary trawl led to Brown’s current legal predicament.
Things haven’t gone better since the start of the federal case, either. Brown presented with a pricy lawyer, then pleaded penury and rolled with court-appointed attorney Darcy Galnor.
Judge James Klindt’s choice of Galnor was interesting. She was connected: her husband Matt handles comms for the Jax Chamber. Given the pyrotechnics of the fall elections, it was easy to miss ephemera like Jacksonville City Council agendas. Which is too bad, given that eagle eyes would have spied the appointment of Galnor to the Jacksonville Ethics Commission. Nominating Galnor was State Attorney Melissa Nelson. This nomination, some say, presents a conflict.
As multiple sources, including The Florida Times-Union, reported, Brown has filed a complaint with The Florida Bar suggesting that Galnor wanted her to plead out, and that Brown was to “help state prosecutors investigating [alleged] City Council Sunshine Law violations.” Per reports, the ultimate targets were critics of the Mayor’s Office, Anna Brosche and Garrett Dennis.
Current Council President Aaron Bowman, who ran uncontested last spring, charged that Dennis was breaking the Sunshine Law by talking about the Council race outside of noticed meetings. Bowman and Dennis were to talk over the matter with the city ethics chair; however, Dennis wanted a noticed meeting, and Bowman did not. Dennis subsequently called a presser. State attorneys were present. In September, The Florida Times-Union reported that lawyers were asking about Sunshine Law violations.
Given the political symbiosis between the council president, the mayor, and the state attorney, some believe that this investigation is a political dagger aimed at the hearts of Anna Brosche and Garrett Dennis.
As an observer of the council, I have some thoughts on the Sunshine Law. The letter and the spirit of this law are often two different things. It is possible to convey attitudes and consensus on a matter (a leadership race, a piece of legislation, whatever) without explicitly mentioning that matter. Deep dives for emails and texts on sensitive subjects are often useless, because everyone is hip to the game. Don’t memorialize anything you care about.
Which is to say that I assume everyone violates the Sunshine Law. From the chats at prayer breakfasts to the whisper sessions in Hemming Park, we can only trust that the pols are following the rules.
Brown could have, in theory, been useful if she was willing to help. And the ol’ two-count plea deal can cut down prison time to almost nothing. In theory. Obviously.
There would have been an irony in her rolling on Brosche, who put her and Reggie Brown on Finance as payback for their council president votes. (And Dennis, whom she always called “Dennis Garrett,” was made chair of that committee.)
Brown’s got a live Bar complaint and a new court-appointed lawyer. Who knows what the future holds?
Regarding the validity of that complaint, which contends that Galnor offered incompetent representation, it’s hard to see it flying. Brown has not established a reputation for veracity in her public life. Even in the 2015 campaign, issues with paying property taxes foreshadowed the financial morass that followed. Brown will have to leverage relationships with the media if she wants, somehow, to make the case that she has been sold out by a larger conspiracy of the city’s political establishment. Leaking the Bar complaint was a good start, but there’s a lot more work ahead.
At this writing, Brown and Brown are poised for February trials. We’ll see if they happen on schedule. Some will look at the trials and see two corrupt politicians who exploited a system. Others will see the system itself on trial, and for them these former councilmembers’ troubles will be another narrative point in a continuing war against black politicians. Expect more news about this whole mess as the year progresses.