Updated at 5:10 p.m.
Ending an unprecedented sequence of events that began Wednesday with the news that former D.C. Council Chairman Kwame Brown had been charged with a felony, Brown pleaded guilty today to charges in two separate criminal proceedings at Washington's federal and local courthouses.
In the morning, Brown, who resigned from the council on Wednesday, pleaded guilty to the felony charge - a single count of bank fraud - in U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia. In the afternoon, he was down the block at District of Columbia Superior Court to plead guilty to a misdemeanor campaign finance law violation he was charged with yesterday.
Speaking outside the federal courthouse in between hearings, Brown admitted to "serious mistakes in judgment," apologizing to his family and constituents. However, he maintained that he had never misused public money and, with respect to the campaign finance charge, claimed that the actions he was accused of had been "done for years" by other candidates, but none were ever charged.
“I have served this city for over seven years. I love this city. Working for the residents has been an honor,” Brown said. But, he added, “six years ago, I made some serious mistakes in judgment and I have taken full and sole responsibility for those mistakes.” He did not answer questions.
Brown is due back in federal court Sept. 20 for sentencing before U.S. District Judge Richard Leon on the bank fraud charge. According to his plea agreement, the government has agreed to ask for a sentencing range between zero and six months, but Leon isn’t bound by those guidelines. The maximum penalty allowed is 30 years in jail, a $1 million fine, or both.
In Superior Court, Brown is also scheduled for sentencing later that same day before Judge Juliet McKenna. According to his plea agreement, the defense and government agreed that the existing sentencing guidelines – a maximum of six months in jail, a $5,000 fine, or both – are appropriate.
Brown’s attorney, Frederick Cooke Jr. of Washington’s Rubin, Winston, Diercks, Harris & Cooke, was by Brown’s side for both proceedings. Speaking with reporters after the second hearing in Superior Court, he said Brown was “embarrassed” by what had happened.
Cooke rejected the idea that Brown had been specially targeted by the U.S. attorney’s office. “I don’t believe the prosecutors were out to get him,” he said.
Later in the afternoon, U.S. Attorney Ronald Machen Jr. told reporters that this marked a “dark and unfortunate” day in the history of the District. He confirmed that Brown’s resignation was a part of the plea deal with prosecutors, but denied that the cases were “the result of this office targeting Mr. Brown.”
Machen explained that Brown’s crimes, while not directly tied to his public duties, nonetheless warranted his resignation, especially since Brown was responsible for the city’s budget and finances. “He traded away his principles for personal gain,” he said. Machen said his was office was continuing to investigate the 2008 campaign, but that he wasn’t planning on filing any additional charges against Brown at this time.
According to a charging statement in the bank fraud case, Brown falsified documents to overstate his income as part of two applications for a bank loan. In the first instance, in applying for a home equity loan in 2005, he stated that he was earning $3,000 a month in income from an unnamed company. But that job didn’t actually exist, according to the statement, and at the bottom of an employment verification form he forged the signature of a person he listed as his employer.
In the second instance, Brown submitted another forged document in 2007 as part of his application for a loan to buy a boat. He listed income from a job he did hold at the time, but submitted an altered copy of his 1099 federal tax form. The form stated that he had earned $35,000, but he changed the “3” to an “8” to read that he had earned $85,000 instead, according to the statement.
Assistant U.S. Attorney David Johnson told Leon that there were no financial losses to the bank because Brown paid back the first loan and was paying off the second one on time. Instead, Johnson explained that the problem was that he knowingly exposed the bank to greater risk.
Brown didn’t speak during the hearing, except to answer “Yes” and “Yes, your honor” to Leon’s questions. He was released on personal recognizance with no conditions and Cooke secured permission from the court to allow Brown to travel outside of the jurisdiction for about a week to avoid the “publicity.”
Brown appeared before Superior Court Judge Juliet McKenna for an arraignment in the afternoon and pleaded guilty to the campaign finance charge, again with Cooke at his side.
The U.S. attorney’s office charged Brown yesterday with a single misdemeanor count of violating the city’s campaign finance laws. Brown was accused of giving his campaign staff the go-ahead to open a “side account” at a bank and make cash withdrawals for a “get-out-the-vote” effort in excess of $50.
Campaign expenditures of more than $50 have to be made by check, according to the D.C. Code. The criminal information filed by the government cited one instance in 2009 where a member of Brown’s campaign staff made an expenditure in excess of $50 by cash.
Johnson, again serving as lead prosecutor, told McKenna that Brown’s campaign committee never disclosed the side account in campaign filings. In 2009, he said, a campaign staffer wrote at least five checks to “cash” for amounts ranging from $1,500 to $5,000. Some of the cash was used to pay campaign workers.
In the specific incident cited in the charging document, a campaign staffer used $1,500 in cash to pay a “campaign expense,” but Johnson didn’t specify what that was.
During his press conference in between hearings, Brown said he was not guilty of opening a side account for a “get-out-the-vote” campaign, but that he was guilty of knowing that campaign workers were receiving payments in excess of $50 for their work. However, he said that’s a practice that’s been “done for years” and that he is the only candidate ever charged for it.
Brown didn’t speak with reporters after the second hearing. He entered and exited Superior Court through “private corridors,” according to a statement released by court spokeswoman Leah Gurowitz. The statement explained that because of a previous incident where a reporter used a camera in a courtroom in violation of court rules, as well as the “chaos” that surrounded Brown’s exit from his office on Wednesday, the court determined that alternate arrangements were appropriate “to maintain order in the courthouse and ensure compliance with court rules.”
Brown is the first D.C. Council chairman to step down in the face of criminal wrongdoing, but he’s not the only councilmember to do so. Last month, Harry Thomas Jr., the former Ward 5 councilman, was sentenced to 38 months in prison after pleading guilty to embezzling more than $350,000 in public funds for private use in D.C. federal court.
At the U.S. attorney’s office’s press conference this afternoon, Ronald Hosko, special agent in charge of the criminal division of the FBI’s Washington field office, recalled watching Brown talk on television about Thomas’ case with “the sword of justice dangling precariously over his own head.”
Mayor Vincent Gray is also the subject of an investigation by the U.S. attorney’s office, but has not been charged with any criminal wrongdoing. Two of his former campaign aides pleaded guilty last month to being part of a scheme to funnel campaign money to one of Gray’s challengers, though. As reported by The National Law Journal, one of Gray’s campaign contributors, Washington businessman Jeffrey Thompson, is fighting the government’s efforts to review tens of millions of pages of documents seized from his home and office.
National Law Journal photo by Zoe Tillman. Above, Kwame Brown, at center, speaks to reporters outside the D.C. federal courthouse, accompanied by attorney Frederick Cooke Jr., on the left, and an unidentified man on the right. Below, Cooke speaks with reporters outside D.C. Superior Court.