Rep. Corrine Brown and her chief of staff were indicted for their involvement in "a conspiracy and fraud scheme" that involved an education charity, the Justice Department announced Friday.
The Florida Democrat and Elias "Ronnie" Simmons were charged with 24 counts, among them mail and wire fraud, theft of government property, and filing false tax returns.
Brown faces up to 357 years in prison, a fine of up to $4 million and three years of supervised release. She pleaded not guilty on all counts Friday, according to The Florida Times-Union .
Bail for the congresswoman and Simmons was set at $50,000, which they must pay only if their release terms were violated, the Times-Union reported. A trial is expected in the fall.
In a statement released Friday afternoon, Brown announced that she was "temporarily" stepping down as the ranking member on the Veterans' Affairs Committee.
"I am innocent of the charges announced today, and intend to vigorously defend myself in court against these politically motivated allegations," the congresswoman said in the statement.
According to the indictment, the charity, One Door for Education — Amy Anderson Scholarship Fund, was falsely represented as a nonprofit that would use its funds for college scholarships and school computer equipment, among other things.
Simmons deposited tens of thousands of dollars into Brown's bank account, the indictment stated. More than $200,000 of the charity's funds were used to pay for events hosted by Brown, including a golf tournament in Ponte Vedra Beach, Florida, and the use of luxury seats at a Beyonce concert and an NFL game in the Washington, D.C., area.
Noah Bookbinder, the executive director of the watchdog group Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, said in a statement that his organization “has long questioned” the relationship between the congresswoman and the charity.
“The indictments of Rep. Brown and her chief of staff, if proven, are part of a disturbing trend of lawmakers using their office to benefit themselves, friends and family,” Bookbinder said. “We applaud the Justice Department for continuing to build on the indictments of Sen. Menendez and Rep. Fattah to establish a pattern of more aggressively enforcing corruption laws and holding public officials accountable when they abuse their office.”
Pennsylvania Rep. Chaka Fattah was convincted on federal corruption charges in June and resigned shortly after. Sen. Robert Menendez of New Jersey was indicted in April of 2015 for supposed political favors for Salomon Melgen, a Florida eye doctor and political donor. Both Fattah and Menendez are Democrats.
U.S. Attorney Lee Bentley III said in a Justice Department statement, “In our nation, no one is above the law.”
“Our office is committed to ferreting out and prosecuting all forms of corruption and fraud, regardless of who the offender is,” Bentley said.
Michelle S. Klimt, the special agent in charge of the FBI's Jacksonville division, said in the statement that "public corruption is the FBI’s top criminal priority."
"It is incredibly disappointing that an elected official, who took an oath year after year to serve others, would exploit the needs of children and abuse the charitable hearts of constituents to advance her own personal and political agendas and deliver them with virtually nothing,” Klimt said.
In March, Brown denied any wrongdoing. “I am clean," Brown said. "Goodness, clean. Yes.”
Brown is serving her 12th term in Congress. Her 5th District is one of the state's majority-minority districts but it was significantly redrawn this year. Former state Sen. Al Lawson is challenging Brown in a competitive primary on August 30.