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What was Alvin Brown’s Role in Katrina Fund Controversy?

Four days before he’ll be sworn in as our city’s seventh mayor since consolidation, the citizens of Jacksonville still know relatively little about the man who will preside as chief executive of the River City for the next four years.

Brown Oversaw Controversial Katrina Fund

Partly because of a somnolent media and, to some degree, owing to his own low-key style in which he rarely speaks about himself, Mayor-elect Brown is still something of an unknown quantity — a man shrouded in mystery.

Unlike Jacksonville’s previous mayors, men who were fairly well-known on the local level by the time they ran for the city’s highest office, Brown hasn’t been subjected to the sort of scrutiny other big city mayors regularly endure.

Many questions remain.

One such question involves his role with the Bush-Clinton Katrina Fund.

Though he rarely, if ever, spoke about it during the recent mayoral campaign, Brown claims to have served as executive director of the Fund’s Interfaith Advisory Committee, a program that granted charitable funds to congregations of all faiths across the Gulf region in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina.

The grants, doled out in amounts up to $35,000, were intended to help religious institutions rebuild their houses of worship. According to the fund’s eligibility criteria, all of the repairs and rebuilding had to be performed in the three affected states of Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama.

A number of churches outside those three states eventually received funding.

The grant money was initially limited to capital repair and reconstruction of damaged churches, but allowed each congregation to use as much as $4,000 to cover rental costs for the temporary relocation of houses of worship damaged or destroyed in the hurricane. Clergy members were also entitled to use $5,000 of the total grant to oversee any repairs and construction.

Unexplained Checks and Mass Resignations

A heavily damaged New Orleans church in the wake of Hurricane Katrina (2005)

Almost immediately the Interfaith Fund was embroiled in a controversy when seven of its nine board members — including the Rev. William H. Gray III, former president of the United Negro College Fund, and Bishop T. D. Jakes, the prominent pastor of Potter’s House in Dallas, a nondenominational mega-church — resigned from the Interfaith Fund’s advisory committee.

Gray and Jakes had served as the committee’s co-chairs.

Mary Ann Wyrsch, president of the Bush-Clinton Katrina Fund, also quit following the multiple resignations of the faith leaders.

Wyrsch, a former United Nations Deputy High Commissioner for Refugees and ex-acting commissioner of the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service, declined a request for an interview with the Jacksonville Observer.

While the religious leaders already had numerous concerns about the way the Interfaith Fund had been operating, the final straw, they said, occurred when the fund disbursed checks of $35,000 each to 38 houses of worship — more than $1.2 million in all — without first investigating whether or not the churches even existed.

That embarrassing controversy took place in July 2006, shortly after the fund — created by former Presidents George H. W. Bush and Bill Clinton — had already raised more than $125 million, of which approximately $20 million had been earmarked for rebuilding faith-based institutions along the Gulf Coast.

Rev. William H. Gray III, former president of the United Negro College Fund

Departing members of the Bush-Katrina ministerial advisory committee said that the fund’s Washington staff disregarded their advice, cutting checks for Gulf Coast churches without properly investigating the institutions.

“I've been in ministry for 30 years and I don't think I've ever resigned from anything. I'm a loyalist to a fault. But what's happened is unacceptable,” said Jakes.

Gray echoed the same thing. It was agreed beforehand, he told reporters at the time, that each of the churches or religious institutions receiving the charity’s money would first be inspected.

“I’ve learned in life that if people say they want your advice and then they change it, ignore it, or undermine it, then they really don’t want it,” said a disappointed Gray.

A few years later, the Interfaith Fund unwittingly found itself in the news again when a minister with the Pilgrim Missionary Baptist Church, which had been devastated by flood water during Hurricane Katrina, was sentenced to 17 months in prison for defrauding the church of the $35,000 Bush-Clinton grant for his personal benefit by having the check mailed to his home address and depositing it into an account that he created. He also devised a similar scheme to defraud the church of some of its $252,000 grant from the Small Business Administration.

According to court documents, he spent nearly $10,000 of the relief funds on a new Dodge Durango for himself.

By March 2007, the Bush-Clinton Katrina Fund had distributed $25 million to more than 1,100 local faith-based groups throughout the region.

The Brown Connection

It remains unclear precisely what Alvin Brown’s role in the 2006 controversy that led to the mass exodus might have been, if any.

We may never know.

There’s little question, however, that he was involved with the fund during that period.

The Jacksonville Observer was able to ascertain that the Mayor-elect was one of the two contact persons for the Interfaith Fund’s application process, which makes sense since — as he claims — he was the fund’s executive director. In fact, his name and phone number were listed on the charity’s original press release announcing the grants.

“As part of its work to help rebuild the Gulf after Hurricane Katrina, the Bush-Clinton Katrina Fund focused a portion of its funding on faith based institutions,” William A. Pierce, spokesman for the Bush-Clinton Katrina Fund, told the Observer on Friday.

“Mr. Brown was involved in that work for a period of time in conjunction with the activities of the Interfaith Advisory Committee. When that committee’s service ended, Mr. Brown's did as well,” said Pierce, who did pro-bono public affairs and media work for the Fund.

Curiously, nobody in the media bothered to ask the new mayor about his experience with the Bush-Clinton Katrina Fund during the campaign, and he rarely, if ever, brought it up himself — a fact that should have raised some red flags.

A Unique Lack of Experience

Jacksonville's new mayor-elect Alvin Brown

The soft-spoken Hans Tanzler, a reformer initially elected prior to consolidation in 1968 and who eventually served as mayor for 11 ½ years, had been a criminal court judge before running for mayor.

Jake Godbold, Tanzler’s successor, served on the Jacksonville city council for a dozen years, including seven years as council president, before becoming mayor in 1979, while 42-year-old Tommy Hazouri, who served as mayor from 1987-1991, had spent a dozen years in the Florida legislature where he chaired the House Committee on Education. Prior to that, Hazouri — the son of Syrian-Lebanese parents — had worked briefly as a research assistant for pre-consolidation Mayor Louis Ritter and later served on the Jacksonville Community Relations Commission.

Ed Austin, likewise, was a known quantity when he was elected mayor in 1991. Having practiced law in the 1960s, including serving as assistant county solicitor and as a public defender, Austin was elected state attorney in 1969 — serving four terms as the region’s lead prosecutor in the criminal justice system representing Clay, Duval and Nassau counties. During that period, he also served as general counsel for Mayor Tanzler for three years shortly after consolidation.

Austin’s successor, John Delaney, had also established deep local roots before winning the mayoralty in 1995. Regarded by many as one of the most popular mayors in Jacksonville history, Delaney had served as a chief assistant state’s attorney under Ed Austin and later as the mayor’s general counsel and chief of staff.

Even Mayor Peyton, the youthful scion of Gate Petroleum whose mayoral opponents in 2003 decried his lack of government experience, had served on the board of the Jacksonville Transportation Authority for nearly seven years, including a two-year stint as JTA chairman from 1999-2001. Unlike Brown, Peyton, who served as vice president of Gate Petroleum — one of the region’s largest employers — also brought considerable experience in the private sector to the mayor’s office.

Those who preceded Brown as mayor had firmly established themselves in local government or industry. Their experience and qualifications weren’t some sort of closely-guarded secret.

One would think a candidate for public office would be immensely proud of being involved in a humanitarian relief effort such as the one established by the former presidents, particularly after a disaster of the magnitude of Hurricane Katrina.

Most candidates would wear it as a badge of honor and probably talk about it endlessly.

Not Alvin Brown.

Maybe he’s just modest.

15 Responses »

  1. He came on the scene like Pres. Obama did. Unknown to the populace, and a puppet for some powerful people no one seems to know either. Will he be left to destroy this city like the Pres. is doing? Maybe. The press, the so-called watchdogs always seem to look away when liberals come into view. The local investigative reporters, who scrutinized his opponent like TSA agents, are nowhere to be seen. Why is that? Unbiased reporting? I don't think so.
    Watch out for who gets what in the coming years. If it starts to smell downtown, let's see where the reporters are.
    (If they were doing their jobs, these stories wouldn't be showing up after the fact. Right?)

  2. I'm curious, of the 38 gulf coast churches who split-up the $1.2 million referred to in the article, how many of the churches had black congregations and how many had white? Did the mayor dole out any money to Muslim mosques, if so how many and how much? Also, was Mr. Brown paid a salary from Bush & Clinton's Katrina Fund, and if so, how much and for how long? Thank you.

  3. This article has few glitches I would like to address.

    First, if Alvin Brown's past is not well-known to voters, I believe the media is largely responsible for that. Jacksonville's media is not liberal, although the Times-Union seems to be repenting somewhat for the problems it has caused or ignored in this town for so long. I can't understand their endorsement of Brown, unless Hogan just failed to kiss up enough. Is it possible the Jacksonville Observer could have published more about Alvin Brown before the election?

    Second, this article makes the point that the recipient churches were not verified as to their existence, but the actual abuse of the program mentioned is traced to a crooked pastor, not a non-existent church.

    Third, the succession of mayors with local political ties has left in its wake an array of political, economic, and social problems. Non-profits have had a free ride, Corruption and Sunshine Law violations happen with regularity, and the perpetrators face little or no consequences. Police spray bullets and kill suspects, using any excuse to evade punishment. Gun violence, teenage pregnancy, infant mortality, suicide, are all way above average. City pensions are a royal mess.This could be why voters wanted someone with fewer local political connections!

    So, even though working with some assumptions I do not accept, the article does raise the question or possibility of Brown's involvement in wrongdoing with this fund. It just doesn't provide enough information to support it.

    Frankly, I believe churches have had it too easy in our society, and rarely do ministers and congregations stand up in opposition to the government which allows them tax-free status. But that's another issue.

    • The Jacksonville media isn't leftist? Hummm... They live and broadcast in a community that would throw them out if they exposed themselves for what they TRUELY are. Their LACK OF REPORTING about Mr Brown is the equivilent of the media's LACK OF REPORTING regarding Mr Obama's past. Jacksonville's reporters are hiding and who can call someone a leftist for simply "ignoring" a story?

  4. Where there is smoke, there is fire. I'm afraid that Jacksonville has Barry Hussein Obama lite. God help us!

  5. This is a classic example of lazy journalism, designed not to illuminate, but to smear someone with innuendo and guilt by association. If the Observer intends to raise legitimate questions, it should have investigated whether or not Mayor-elect Brown was involved or implicated in any questionable activities with the Katrina Fund, whether any of his actions led to the resignation of the referenced religious leaders, and whether he was implicated at all in the felony conviction of the guy who misappropriated funds. It is easy to criticize some of the allocation of Funds in retrospect, however, in real time, Katrina left behind such widespread destruction and urgent need that the Fund would have been more criticized if it was slow to distribute. It is remarkable that, with $125 million to distribute, the fraud and abuse was so relatively minor. To state that John Peyton was a well-known public entity prior to his election is untrue: to the contrary, he was virtually unknown to the populace as a whole, had been promoted within his Father's vast empire, and had kittle to no individual public achievement. Whether or not his tenure as Mayor was successful or not is open to debate. Let's give Mayor Brown a chance to lead our City without the taint of a contrived scandal that is, to date, devoid of facts to support it.

  6. I'm glad that someone is looking into the background of our mayor-elect. It's a shame this didn't happen, you know, BEFORE the election. Granted, with the lousy campaign the GOP nominee ran, it probably wouldn't have made much of a difference, but where was the media scrutiny from our hard hitting local TV stations, radio, or the TU? It's like everyone turned a blind eye to the utter lack of back story on this guy for fear of being accused of something. And who suffers?

  7. I especially love how they criticize the "somnolent media" of which they are a minor cog. Would have been nice to see a little digging before the election, guys :) Like the other posters have pointed out, look what this level of journalism earned us in the Presidency.

  8. "To state that John Peyton was a well-known public entity prior to his election is untrue: to the contrary, he was virtually unknown to the populace as a whole, had been promoted within his Father’s vast empire, and had kittle to no individual public achievement."

    What are you talking about? Before becoming Mayor he served on the Board of the JTA and also as it's Chairman, was Chairman of the Board of Directors for both the Jacksonville Symphony and Greenscape, served on innumerable "public" committees (Downtown Master Plan, etc) plus was fairly high profie senior executive at one of Jax's best known companies.

    His "public" profile was higher than Delaney's prior to his run for office.

  9. You guys are a little to the party. This is exactly the kind of story Hogan supporters were begging the media to report. The media knew about this any others but refused to report any of it. And this is just one one many questionable dealings in Brown's background - there are many more.

  10. Chicago, why is it, most of time, when dealing in politics the connection runs back to Chicago ? Why was the DNC so interested in the election of the Mayor of Jacksonville? And, where did all that money come from for the last minute ads and commercials ? The answer is simple. The Obama Chicago Machine. There is great hope Mayor Brown will shore up the support for Obama in Northeast Florida in 2012. Also, by doing that, Mayor Brown can repay the favor debt of Obama in the area for his supporters. In the meantime, the citizens of Jacksonville, I believe, will suffer in the long run.
    There are many, many problems that need immediate attention in the City and it does't have the luxury of time on it's side while it's Mayor runs around playing politics.

  11. Read an article in one of Jacksonville's black publications of an interview with Alvin Brown, before he won the run-off. Mr. Brown stated that it was important for him to win the mayoral election because Fl was important for Obama to carry in the 2012 presidential election, and he wanted to help him win.
    That sealed it for me. Brown aspires to the same things Barry does. He wants to change America as we know it into a socialist nation.
    Hang onto your hats, Jacksonville is in for a rough ride.

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