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Congress: America's Criminal Class: Part I

Rep. Corrine Brown and her long trail of lies, deceit and unpaid bills

By the staff of
PoliticsLive

America, Mark Twain once said, is a nation without a distinct criminal class "with the possible exception of Congress."

If anything, the Congress of today is even worse than it was in Twain's time more than a century ago.

The 535 men and women who make up the House and Senate of the United States include, at best, a collection of rogues, con artists, scofflaws and bad check artists. At worst, they comprise, as Twain once observed, a distinct criminal class.

Over the past several months, researchers for PoliticsLive have checked public records, past newspaper articles, civil court cases and criminal records of members of the United States Congress. We have talked with former associates and business partners who have been left out in the cold by people they thought were friends.

What emerges from this examination is a disturbing portrait of a group of elected officials who routinely avoid payment of debts, write bad checks, abuse their spouses, assault people and openly violate the law.

They include current Rep. Corrine Brown (D-Fla), whose trail of bad debts, lies to Congress and misstatements to the Internal Revenue Service have spawned a number of investigations. Then there is Rep. James Moran (D-Va) whose wife has charged him with abuse, who has assaulted other members of Congress on the floor of the House and is a former stockbroker whose judgment in trades is so bad he is broke from poor investments. The list also includes Joe Waldholtz, a con man and husband of former Rep. Enid Greene Waldholtz (R-UT) who kited more than a million dollars in bad checks and ended up in prison.

Others, like former Ohio Senator John Glenn, have driven creditors into bankruptcy because of unpaid debts left over from aborted Presidential campaigns. Even millionaire Senator Ted Kennedy has left a trail of unpaid debts from past campaigns.

In recent years, members of Congress have gone to jail for child molestation, fraud and other charges.

Our research found 117 members of the House and Senate who have run at least two businesses each that went bankrupt, often leaving business partners and creditors holding the bag. Seventy-one of them have credit reports so bad they can't get an American Express card (but as members of Congress, they get a government-issued Amex card without a credit check).

Fifty-three have personal and financial problems so serious they would be denied security clearances by the Department of Defense or the Department of Energy if they had to apply through normal channels (but, again, as members of Congress they get such clearances simply because they fooled enough people to get elected).

Twenty-nine members of Congress have been accused of spousal abuse in either criminal or civil proceedings. Twenty-seven have driving while intoxicated arrests on their driving records. Twenty-one are current defendants in various lawsuits, ranging from bad debts, disputes with business partners or other civil matters.

Nineteen members of Congress have been accused of writing bad checks, even after the scandal several years ago, which resulted in closure of the informal House bank that routinely allowed members to overdraw their accounts without penalty. Fourteen members of Congress have drug-related arrests in their background, eight were arrested for shoplifting, seven for fraud, four for theft, three for assault and one for criminal trespass.

Over the next five days, PoliticsLive will take a closer look at some of the more notorious members of America's Criminal Class - the Congress of the United States. We will not run lists of every member who has written a bad check, punched somebody out or been charged with slapping a spouse. Rather, we will examine those whose pattern of behavior suggests a blatant disregard for both law and propriety.

Part I: Rep. Corrine Brown - running on a record of fraud

In just seven years in Congress, Rep. Corrine Brown has eluded creditors, filed false financial disclosure reports and lied to the Internal Revenue Service.

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

Rep. Brown 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 details from her reports.

Brown 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.

In addition, the House ethics committee is investigating Brown over her dealings with an African millionaire who was imprisoned on bribery charges. Two committee investigators went to Miami recently to interview witnesses for that case.

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.

But Brown not only fails to truthfully report 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 recently 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.

Last year, Brown's daughter received a $50,000 car from a close associate of the African millionaire who faces bribery charges.
Brown's financial dealings show a long, consistent record of deceit.

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, now 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.

But 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.

Brown also failed to pay unemployment taxes to the state. The State Department of Labor filed a $353 state tax lien against the company. As of last week, the lien had not been paid.

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 finally paid the bill after the company obtained a judgment.

But Brown was busy opening 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 in March 1993.

But 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).

Enter three Miami businessmen who were willing to take over her failing travel agency.

Emilio F. Torres and his partners at Douglas Executive Travel 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, however, 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 Brown 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. Her 1994 form said she didn't have enough money to make the payment.

Her latest report shows no savings accounts, no money market funds and no stocks that she could redeem. The only asset she listed is a Jacksonville condo that she rents.

Yet she still hasn't paid back the money she borrowed from Barnett Bank in 1991 and has mortgages on a $110,000 waterfront house in Jacksonville and the $300,000 Alexandria, Va., townhouse she recently 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, said in her financial disclosure report that 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 forgot 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 is a focus of charges against Lyons. Federal prosecutors say Lyons, president of the National Baptist Convention USA, hid more than $1 million in the account.

Brown's office did not return phone calls seeking comment on this report.

(The report was coordinated and written by PoliticsLive editor Jack Sharp with assistance from researcher Marilyn Crosslyn and private investigator James Hargill.)


Tomorrow - Virginia's battling Jim Moran, the Congressmen who admits he "likes to hit people" and the former stockbroker whose trades have left him busted.

 

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