Transcript sheds light on investigation into Atlanta councilman’s fraud charges

Councilman Antonio Brown running for mayor while fighting federal indictment

The meeting began cordially. Antonio Brown, just a few months into his tenure as an Atlanta city councilman, thought he was sitting down with federal investigators as a whistleblower, to discuss confidential allegations of public corruption he had first made weeks earlier.

Brown’s demeanor was pleasant as he talked through those accusations.

But the investigators, armed with handguns and a recording device hidden in a jacket pocket, were there for a different reason. After 30 minutes, they shifted the conversation from discussing Brown’s allegations to asking Brown about himself.

Outside his Atlantic Station apartment, six to eight more agents waited before executing a search warrant on Brown and his home. Almost a year after that Sept. 4, 2019 meeting, Brown was indicted on federal fraud charges for incidents that allegedly happened years before he took office.

Now, Brown is running to become Atlanta’s 61st mayor.

Previously unreported details about the meeting and the ruse conducted on Brown were revealed in a transcript obtained by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution from a recent court hearing. The transcript sheds more light on the investigation into the councilman, and how public corruption allegations Brown made against another elected official played a part in the probe.

Combined ShapeCaption
A screenshot from the transcript of an April 19, 2021 evidentiary hearing shows Assistant U.S. Attorney Thomas Krepp's questioning of U.S. Postal Service inspector Jacob Petronis. Federal investigators conducted a ruse on Councilman Antonio Brown a year before indicting him on fraud charges.

Credit: Transcript screenshot / via U.S. District Court, Northern District of Georgia

A screenshot from the transcript of an April 19, 2021 evidentiary hearing shows Assistant U.S. Attorney Thomas Krepp's questioning of U.S. Postal Service inspector Jacob Petronis. Federal investigators conducted a ruse on Councilman Antonio Brown a year before indicting him on fraud charges.

Credit: Transcript screenshot / via U.S. District Court, Northern District of Georgia

Combined ShapeCaption
A screenshot from the transcript of an April 19, 2021 evidentiary hearing shows Assistant U.S. Attorney Thomas Krepp's questioning of U.S. Postal Service inspector Jacob Petronis. Federal investigators conducted a ruse on Councilman Antonio Brown a year before indicting him on fraud charges.

Credit: Transcript screenshot / via U.S. District Court, Northern District of Georgia

Credit: Transcript screenshot / via U.S. District Court, Northern District of Georgia

The pending charges against Brown — a young, progressive candidate with bold plans to “reimagine” public safety in Atlanta — are receiving renewed attention since he entered the mayor’s race. The indictment threatens to complicate Brown’s candidacy and provide fodder for opponents and critics as he makes his case to voters.

Under city law, any elected official convicted of a felony must vacate their seat immediately. But Brown said at a recent event he would not be running “if I felt any concern about the outcome of this case.”

ExploreAtlanta City Councilman Antonio Brown officially launches campaign for mayor

“There are a lot of people in the community that like Antonio personally,” said Colette Haywood, a community leader in Brown’s district.

Haywood said she likes what Brown has done so far as a council member, but she isn’t sure yet whether she’ll vote for him to be mayor: “I don’t understand how you run when you are under indictment. ... If I were under federal indictment, I’d concentrate on clearing my name.”

Brown, who recently made headlines as a crime victim when his car was stolen in northwest Atlanta, launched his campaign days after current Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms announced she will not seek reelection this year. Other candidates in the race are City Council President Felicia Moore, Councilman Andre Dickens, and attorney Sharon Gay.

A grand jury indicted Brown July 29, 2020 on four felony charges: wire fraud, mail fraud, bank fraud and making false statements on a bank loan application. Prosecutors allege he took out thousands of dollars in loans and opened several credit cards to make personal purchases, before falsely claiming his identity had been stolen. He is also accused of providing false information to Signature Bank when applying for a loan in August 2017.

Brown pleaded not guilty and did not step down from the City Council following the indictment.

He addressed the allegations as he kicked off his mayoral campaign May 14, acknowledging that critics may bring up the charges and try to use them against him.

“I am absolutely innocent. Furthermore, let me state unequivocally: Atlanta deserves a mayor with honesty and integrity and I would not be running for mayor if I felt any concern about the outcome of this case,” Brown said.

Whistleblower interview a ‘ruse’

Brown first went to the U.S. Attorney’s Office on Aug. 1, 2019 to make a whistleblower report of misuse of federal funds by other elected officials in the Atlanta city government and state Legislature, Brown’s attorneys wrote in a recent brief filed with the court.

Jacob Petronis, an U.S. postal service inspector, testified during an April 19 hearing that by that point, the feds had already been investigating Brown for several months.

Petronis said the details of Brown’s allegations were confidential. The transcript and other public court filings do not include specifics about Brown’s allegations or what the feds did with them.

The investigator texted Brown a few weeks later and asked for another meeting. They met at Brown’s apartment — Petronis defined the meeting as a “ruse” during the April 19 hearing. They discussed his whistleblower report for about 30 minutes, but the councilman grew nervous as the conversation shifted, Petronis said.

“His speech pattern changed, a little bit more fidgety,” he said.

Petronis “asked pointed questions about Mr. Brown’s financial history, loan applications, credit report, and previously disputed bank charges” for an hour, before executing the search warrant on his apartment and his phone, Brown’s attorneys wrote.

Brown’s legal team is trying to throw out the recording taken during that meeting, arguing he was effectively in custody at that time and being improperly interrogated, since the investigators did not read him his Miranda rights. Prosecutors argue that ruses are legal and Brown’s statements were voluntary.

Combined ShapeCaption
A screenshot from the transcript of an April 19, 2021 evidentiary hearing shows Assistant U.S. Attorney Thomas Krepp's questioning of U.S. Postal Service inspector Jacob Petronis. Federal investigators conducted a ruse on Councilman Antonio Brown a year before indicting him on fraud charges.

Credit: Transcript screenshot / via U.S. District Court, Northern District of Georgia

A screenshot from the transcript of an April 19, 2021 evidentiary hearing shows Assistant U.S. Attorney Thomas Krepp's questioning of U.S. Postal Service inspector Jacob Petronis. Federal investigators conducted a ruse on Councilman Antonio Brown a year before indicting him on fraud charges.

Credit: Transcript screenshot / via U.S. District Court, Northern District of Georgia

Combined ShapeCaption
A screenshot from the transcript of an April 19, 2021 evidentiary hearing shows Assistant U.S. Attorney Thomas Krepp's questioning of U.S. Postal Service inspector Jacob Petronis. Federal investigators conducted a ruse on Councilman Antonio Brown a year before indicting him on fraud charges.

Credit: Transcript screenshot / via U.S. District Court, Northern District of Georgia

Credit: Transcript screenshot / via U.S. District Court, Northern District of Georgia

Judge Alan Baverman could make a recommendation on whether to throw out the recording after both sides file briefs and responses by July 7. A trial date has not been set, but it could be months before one kicks off.

The typical sentences for federal fraud charges can range from a few months to multiple years, depending on the amount of money at issue, experts said.

“The more money involved, the longer the potential sentence,” said Buddy Parker, a former federal prosecutor who now works as a defense attorney.

The indictment alleges that starting in 2012, Brown opened credit cards through Chase, Bank of America and American Express and used them to spend thousands on personal purchases, including flights. Prosecutors said he also took out loans totaling over $60,000 to finance the purchase of a Mercedes-Benz C300 and Range Rover. He then allegedly tried to defraud the banks by claiming his identity had been stolen.

Brown is also accused of lying about his income and assets when applying for a $75,000 loan for his shoe and clothing company, LVL XIII Brands, in 2017.

Reached for comment, Brown declined to speak about the specifics of his case, but said the campaign rally was the last time he would address the indictment. Emily Ward, one of his attorneys, declined to comment on the pending case, as did a spokesman for the U.S. Attorney’s Office.

‘He gets stuff done’

Brown was elected to the City Council in April 2019 in a special election following the death of former Councilman Ivory Lee Young Jr. His district includes the Westside neighborhoods of Vine City, English Avenue, Washington Park and several other historically Black neighborhoods that also have some of the lowest median household incomes in the city. It’s also a rapidly changing area, following the construction of Mercedes-Benz Stadium and parts of the Beltline.

When he was elected, Brown was seen as an anti-establishment voice on the Council. He sponsored a resolution to study the creation of a new Department of Public Safety and Wellness, and another that urged Atlanta police to strengthen their policy requiring officers to intervene if they witness internal misconduct.

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City Councilman Antonio Brown speaks at a press conference last July. STEVE SCHAEFER FOR THE ATLANTA JOURNAL-CONSTITUTION

City Councilman Antonio Brown speaks at a press conference last July.  STEVE SCHAEFER FOR THE ATLANTA JOURNAL-CONSTITUTION

Combined ShapeCaption
City Councilman Antonio Brown speaks at a press conference last July. STEVE SCHAEFER FOR THE ATLANTA JOURNAL-CONSTITUTION

He started his bid for mayor with a promise to “reimagine” public safety in Atlanta to empower and support the city’s marginalized communities, and has criticized Bottoms’ administration for being too “reactive” on issues of crime.

“I’ve watched as our so-called leaders have perpetuated a façade of a Black mecca of the South, which has resulted in generations of underserved communities, stuck in a continuous cycle of poverty,” Brown said.

Sherry Bellille has lived in Vine City for nearly 30 years, and didn’t vote for Brown during the 2019 special election. But since then, she’s become a supporter. Bellille remembers seeing him in the neighborhood shortly after he took office, and she pointed out a pothole that needed to be filled.

“The next day, the pothole was fixed,” she said. “I said, ‘Dang, that’s the ideal person.’ He gets stuff done and he’s mixing with the people.”

The pending fraud charges don’t affect Bellille’s support for Brown in the mayoral election. She said she’s confident they will be cleared up.

“Antonio Brown is like a regular person we can identify with,” she said. “Nobody’s perfect.”