ATLANTA (AP) — Several heavyweights of the 1960s civil rights movement asked a federal judge Wednesday to show leniency to a former Georgia state representative and civil rights activist who's being sentenced this week on fraud charges.
Tyrone Brooks, an Atlanta Democrat, pleaded guilty in April to one count of filing a false tax document and no contest to five counts of mail and wire fraud. His sentencing hearing began Monday and U.S. District Judge Amy Totenberg is expected to sentence him Friday.
An indictment alleged that Brooks solicited about $1 million in contributions from the mid-1990s to 2012 from individuals and corporate donors, saying the money would be used to fight illiteracy in underserved communities and for other causes. The contributions were made to the Georgia Association of Black Elected Officials, which Brooks had led since 1994, and to Universal Humanities, a tax-exempt organization Brooks founded in 1990.
Prosecutors have asked Totenberg for a two-year prison sentence. Brooks' lawyers are seeking five years' probation, citing his lifetime of dedicated civil rights work.
The Rev. Joseph Lowery, who helped the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. found the Southern Christian Leadership Conference and fought alongside King against racial discrimination, testified in a video message that Brooks has made "some serious and foolish mistakes," but he urged Totenberg to find mercy.
"That's a long time to be in prison," he said of the prosecution's request. "And it doesn't serve any good purpose. It won't help restore anything that has been lost."
C.T. Vivian, another friend and confidant of King, said Brooks came into the civil rights movement as a young man eager to make a difference and has been doing so ever since. He said Brooks should be allowed to continue doing that.
"We need him out and moving about," Vivian said.
Andrew Young, a former U.N. ambassador, congressman and Atlanta mayor, said under questioning by former Georgia Gov. Roy Barnes, an attorney for Brooks, that he's always been impressed by Brooks' dedication and that funding has always been an issue for the civil rights movement.
Federal prosecutor Kurt Erskine seized on a statement Young made, that "the letter of the law" applies to handling money. Erskine asked what he meant by that.
"I meant that you have to be accountable, and we always did the best we could to be accountable. We never used things personally," but had to stretch and make do, Young said.
Prosecutors have acknowledged that Brooks has made a positive impact, but they argue he used his reputation and trust to solicit donations for personal expenses, including utility bills, dry cleaning, clothing, restaurant meals and cable bills.
A representative for the Coca-Cola Company testified Tuesday that Brooks' influence in the community and relationship with company leaders affected the decision to donate to both Universal Humanities and GABEO.
"What makes us feel good about an organization is the people affiliated with the organization," Johnson said.
Coca-Cola received solicitations from Brooks on behalf of both organizations detailing specific projects the money would be used for, and the company would not have donated had it been clear the money would be used for personal expenses, Johnson said.
Universal Humanities' letterhead, which Brooks used to solicit donations, listed prominent people on its board of directors — people who told investigators they'd never heard of the organization, prosecutors said.
State Sen. Emanuel Jones testified Tuesday that he had never heard of the organization before he saw media reports about the investigation and hadn't been aware that Brooks had listed him as a member of the organization's steering committee in promotional materials.
"Once I learned of this organization, I was extremely dismayed and confounded," he testified.
A FBI agent testified that large corporate donations deposited into the Universal Humanities and GABEO accounts would be transferred by check, marked as reimbursements, into Brooks' personal account. There was no evidence that any of the money was used for literacy programs or other projects Brooks outlined in his solicitations, Special Agent Christy Parker testified Monday.
Brooks' lawyers have argued their client solicited money for charitable causes and worked tirelessly doing charitable work. Brooks was not motivated by greed, but rather spent money sustaining himself and his work on social causes, and most of his donors would have been fine with that, knowing they were supporting his ongoing work, they've argued.