“Transactional money is a challenge.”
This amazingly revealing quote, secured by Jenna Bourne from Action News Jax, is from Stephen Bittel, chairman of the Florida Democratic Party, who was in town Friday for two reasons.
The advertised reason: a speech to young Dems at University of North Florida. The real reason? His private plane had to make a landing, so to speak, at the Corrine Brown trial.
Bittel, a generous man in the way that everyone in the political class is generous, gave money to One Door for Education.
And why not? When “philanthropic giving” not only stirs your soul, but (at least theoretically) eases your tax burden, you might as well be friendly. After all, you never know when you might need a friend someday, and up until things turned for her, Queen Corrine was a great friend to have.
Bittel testified that in 2014, Brown and her crew (Ronnie Simmons and Carla Wiley, who’ve already turned on her) wanted to use Bittel’s private jet to go to a Jaguars/Redskins game in the D.C. area. It was supposedly for a One Door fundraiser event, so Bittel made it happen.
What it was: a bunch of Brown cronies, and Queen Corrine herself, in an exclusive skybox living la vida loca.
This has been a frustrating trial to cover, because the testimony (through week one) swung from one bamboozled big-dollar donor to the next, without prosecution or defense really getting at the mechanism that makes grifts like this quasi-charity possible.
One Door is a product of the system of “transactional money” that Bittel discussed … outside the courtroom.
Those lawyers weren’t going to ask about transactional money. And that jury isn’t politically savvy enough to think it through more deeply.
In so many instances, here’s the rough narrative arc. Brown hits up some jamoke for contributions to her campaign fund or her legal defense fund or her Honey Dripper House fund.
These folks don’t want to be on the contribution report ... not for Corrine Brown. However, they will do it on the down-low, where nobody has to know.
To that end, one of a few pass-through mechanisms was One Door, a way to “keep black kids out of trouble,” as one donor quoted Queen Corrine.
Some put in as much as $90K. Perhaps they had some issue in a congressional committee Brown was on, and they needed to push that issue.
Brown, the narrative runs, made the pitch on the phone. Or in person, even going to New Jersey to hustle one chump for One Door.
“One Door for Education is my passion and it helps keep black children out of trouble,” Brown allegedly told a New Jersey anesthesiologist with a history of fraud allegations himself.
Brown’s verbal pitches were followed up by semi-coherent emails from Ronnie Simmons, who would drop dimes like “we really could use $10k.”
I mean, really—how can you refuse that?
They’d take these fools for money for the most outlandish bullshit. The Corrine Brown Golf Invitational. Exchange trips to China. The football skybox. And the Beyoncé skybox.
Donors didn’t vet where the money was going. Not a one of them—many who provided seed money for the city’s leadership class with hundreds of thousands of dollars in donations—got anything approaching verifiable detail on where their money went.
Because, ultimately, the money didn’t matter to them.
It might take you, the reader, three years to make $90,000. But for Bright House Networks, which had a $600,000 yearly spend on “philanthropy,” if you have a congresswoman with a charity, why not put some of that budget into her?
Never mind that it takes 30 seconds to verify 501(c)3 registration and is usually provided in great detail at the bottom of paperwork soliciting funds. Or that none of these people came chasing back when they learned it wasn’t a tax write-off.
It wasn’t about charity. It was, as Bittel correctly asserted, transactional money. Doled out away from the cameras, outside official channels or accountability. Too toxic for photo ops.
Following testimony in the first part of the trial, one has to consider one of two conclusions, both of which are depressing as hell.
One: The people who put hundreds of thousands into your candidates lack serious ability to vet where their money is going.
The other: They knew, or could guess, that the money was going—at least in part—to the Corrine Machine, feeding all of those hungry mouths.
Transactional money. Strategic philanthropy.
Corrine Brown may be guilty as hell. But so is the system that propped her up, that failed to do deep-dives into the fictional charity it funded.
In closing, a Fun Fact: Very, very few of these donors wanted to talk into live mikes when TV chased them after the trial.
So much for “cash me outside.”