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
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.
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
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.