The most corrupt member of Congress?

Here’s a challenge. Try to find the most corrupt member of Congress. Yeah, I know, trying to identify the most corrupt member of the House or Senate is like trying to determine how many women Bill Clinton screwed in the White House.

House Majority Leader Tom DeLay is certainly a leading candidate. Money laundering, fraud, abuse of campaign laws, payoffs from lobbyists whose legislation he supported. DeLay’s list of crimes goes on and on.

But DeLay is an amateur when it comes to the antics of Rep. Corrine Brown (D-Fla), a real piece of work who has left business partners holding the bag for her misdeeds, eluded creditors, filed false financial disclosure reports and lied to the Internal Revenue Service.

We’ve been following Brown’s antics since 1999 when we wrote a series about America’s Criminal Class: The Congress of the United States.  While some of the crooks and clowns we highlighted in that series are gone, Brown remains in Congress and hasn’t cleaned up her act.

“She cons people, pure and simple,” says Sheryl Wilson, a former travel agency owner in Tallahassee who knows Brown. “I don’t think she has an honest bone in her body.”

Rep. Brown alos has a poor memory when it comes to remembering her business dealings. The financial records that every member of Congress is required to file shows the Jacksonville, Florida Democrat failed to disclose the $40,000 sale of her Tallahassee travel agency and improperly reported the sale of her Gainesville agency and she has omitted other required important financial details from her reports.

Plus she has left a trail of unpaid bills from businesses she owned in Gainesville, Jacksonville and Tallahassee during the early 1990s.

In 1994, a consortium of airlines sued Brown for $94,000 in because her company, Springfield Travel Agency Inc., falsified sales reports and did not pay its bills. Delta Air Lines revoked her authority to write tickets because of an unpaid $7,237 bill. She also owed $5,697 to the University of Florida and tried to pay part of the bill with a bad check.

The IRS also went after Brown for $14,228 in unpaid taxes and the Whirlpool Corp. had to go to court to try and collect $10,227 in unpaid bills for appliances.

The House ethics committee investigated Brown over her dealings with an African millionaire imprisoned on bribery charges.

Brown not only avoids personal responsibility for her financial dealings, but also routinely violates congressional rules and the law.

Members of Congress are required to file reports to reveal any potential conflicts of interest. As a member of the House aviation subcommittee, Brown oversees the very airlines that sued her for unpaid bills.

Brown lied in her reports, failing to list transactions involving her travel business. She also spends money she never reports and buys expensive homes and other items even though she is deeply in debt. Although she paid $25,000 for a down payment on a $300,000 townhouse, those who know her say they have no idea where she got the money.

“Somebody is always bailing her out,” says a former staff member. “You can bet the money came from sources nobody wants to discuss.”

Members who file incomplete or false reports face criminal charges under federal law. Republican George Hansen of Idaho went to prison for 11 months in 1984 and paid a $40,000 for failing to report more than $300,000 in loans and profits.

Yet Brown and even her family appear immune to the law. Five years ago, here daughter received a $50,000 Lexis from a close associate of an African millionaire who faced bribery charges.

In 1985, she started a travel agency, Springfield Travel, while serving as a Florida state legislator. Papers she filed with the Florida Department of State, listed two prominent state legislators as her vice presidents-Reps. Doug “Tim” Jamerson of St. Petersburg and James Hargrett of Tampa.

But Jamerson or Hargrett say didn’t know they were affiliated with her company until years later.

“I was somewhat surprised to learn I was even on the board,” said Jamerson, later a Tallahassee lobbyist. “It would have been nice to have been asked.”

Brown opened the agency’s first office in her hometown of Jacksonville and started a second office in Tallahassee where she spend most of her time while serving in the legislature.

Brown often used the agency to take advantage of the free trips offered to travel agents.

“She was always getting tickets to Aruba and places like that,” former employee Ed Curry told The St. Petersburg Times.

While Brown was running off to Aruba on free trips, creditors were calling to ask why they weren’t getting paid.

Brown occasionally paid her employees in cash or wrote personal checks to cover payroll, Curry said. More than once, the paychecks bounced.

She also failed to pay unemployment taxes to the state. The State Department of Labor filed a $353 state tax lien against the company.

Even though she couldn’t pay her bills, Brown sought to expand her company in 1991.

Barnett Bank gave her a $10,000 loan, but could never get a full accounting of how it was spent. At the same time, Brown started a new company, Springfield Enterprises, which she said would resell appliances and seafood.

Whirlpool Corp. filed suit against Springfield Enterprises for an unpaid $10,227 bill, saying Brown bought more than a dozen large appliances and didn’t pay for them. Brown paid the bill only after the company obtained a judgment.

Such debts did not prevent Brown from starting other businesses. In February 1992, she opened Gator Travel at the University of Florida in Gainesville.

Seven months later, she was five months behind in her rent and owed the university $7,066. The IRS also filed a lien against Springfield Travel for $14,228 in unpaid taxes. Brown, who was running for her first term in Congress, was busy looking for someone to buy the travel agency.

Two buyers – Melvin Stith, dean of the Florida State University business school, and Edward Scott II, a Tallahassee dentist – paid her $40,000 for the agency, according to a contract filed with the state. Brown did not report the sale on her mandatory congressional disclosure, which required her to list sales of all assets worth more than $1,000.

The cash allowed her to make payments on some of her debts. The University of Florida got a personal check for the overdue $8,479 bill. The IRS withdrew the lien against her.

Brown was soon in trouble again. In February 1993, she wrote the University of Florida a check for $1,413 – partial payment for a $5,600 bill.

The check bounced.

A month later, Delta Air Lines revoked her authority to write tickets because of an unpaid $7,237 bill, a move that effectively put her travel agency out of business (Delta was the primary airline serving Gainesville).

So Brown turned to others to, once again, bail her out.

Emilio F. Torres and his partners at Douglas Executive Travel in Miami agreed to pay Brown’s overdue rent to the university and take over the agency, but the transition to Torres’ company took more than six months because Brown owed the airlines so much money.

Finally, the airlines seized Brown’s official ticketing plates and Torres was allowed to take over the lease.

Brown then lied about the transaction on her financial disclosure reports to the House of Representatives. Her 1993 report claims Torres bought her agency for an amount between $50,000 and $100,000. Since then, her reports claim she is owed $50,000 to $100,000 by Torres and his partners.

But Torres never bought Gator Travel. He just assumed the lease.

“We didn’t buy anything from her,” he says. “I don’t owe her anything.”

State records support his claims.

Torres also did not pay Brown’s overwhelming unpaid debts to the airlines.

The Airlines Reporting Corp., a consortium of the airlines that handles ticket transactions with travel agencies, filed a lawsuit against Brown in U.S. District Court in Washington in September, 1994 (while Brown was running for her second term), saying Brown failed to pay about $94,000 for plane tickets and lied about her financial transactions.

Brown eventually paid the $94,000 and the suit was dismissed but she never reported the debts on her disclosure forms. Florida state records show she signed a contract in 1992 taking personal responsibility for the bills.

Her disclosure forms also fail to show where she got the $94,000 to pay off the airlines. According to her 1994 form said she didn’t have enough money to make the payment.

Those reports listed no savings accounts, no money market funds and no stocks that she could redeem. The only asset she listed was a Jacksonville condo that she rented out.

Yet she hadn’t paid back money borrowed from Barnett Bank in 1991 and had mortgages on a $110,000 waterfront house in Jacksonville and a $300,000 Alexandria, Va., townhouse she bought with her daughter.
Nobody seems to know where Brown got the $25,000 down payment for the townhouse. Brown’s daughter, a political appointee for the Environmental Protection Agency at the time, said in her financial disclosure report she didn’t have any assets over $1,000.

“She’s always pulling a scam on someone,” says Oliver Roster of Jacksonville, who has known Brown for years. “Somebody, somewhere, got the money for her. What we don’t know yet is what she had to do or promise to get it.”

Brown also failed to disclose a $10,000 check she received in 1996 from a secret Wisconsin bank account Baptist leader Henry J. Lyons allegedly used for money laundering.

The money came from a secret account in Milwaukee that was a focus of charges against Lyons. Federal prosecutors said Lyons, president of the National Baptist Convention USA, hid more than $1 million in the account.

Brown remains in Congress, keeps getting re-elected, and, according to public records, continues to scam creditors and live large. In a September 2000 report the House Ethics Committee said Brown showed “poor judgment” and “created substantial concerns” in her conduct but closed its investigation because it could not reach key witnesses.

“Although the evidence … raised concerns as to whether Representative Brown may have violated standards of conduct … the subcommittee did not obtain sufficient evidence” to “adopt or to prove a statement of alleged violation,” the report said.

“This was due in large part to the fact that key witnesses who had actual knowledge of the events within the subcommittee’s jurisdiction were beyond the reach of the committee’s subpoena power and could not be compelled to give testimony,” the report concluded.

Which is a fancy way of saying “we know she’s dirty but we can’t do a damn thing about it.”