Civil rights activist and former state Rep. Tyrone Brooks is going to federal prison.
A year and day day in prison and then two years probation was the sentence handed down by U.S. District Judge Amy Totenberg Monday after her 90-minute explanation of how she decided his punishment for tax, wire and mail fraud.
The lifelong civil rights activist will remain free at least until after a Jan. 19 hearing to decide how much restitution he will be ordered to pay for taking contributions for a literacy program that never existed.
Prosecutors had asked for two years in prison while Brooks’ legal team, two public defenders and former Gov. Roy Barnes, pushed for probation in light of his history in civil rights.
“I wish this didn’t have to happen,” Totenberg said after listing all the good things the civil rights activist had done in the 5 ½ decades since he first took up the cause as a teenager.
And now, “Mr. Brooks has lost his most sacred of rights in his life, the right to vote and the right to sit on a jury,” the judge said.
While some complained on social media that Brooks’ punishment was not harsh enough, there were expressions of sadness from one-time legislative colleagues, his fellow soldiers in the civil rights movement and even the federal prosecutor who brought the case against him.
“There’s never going to be a good sentence for a civil rights icon like Tyrone Brooks,” U.S. Attorney John Horn said. “It’s incredibly difficult to contemplate him serving time in prison. The problem is that, as Judge Totenberg noted, his behavior is unacceptable, and so we feel strongly that the sentence conveys the wrongfulness of his conduct both to him and the community.”
In April, facing 30 c0unts of tax, mail and wire fraud, Brooks resigned the legislative seat he had held almost 35 years, and the next day he entered pleas of guilty to one count of tax fraud and no contest to five counts of wire and mail fraud.
Over an almost 20-year period, Brooks diverted to his personal bank account almost $1 million in contributions that a labor union and five major corporations gave for a literacy program that was purported he operated by a charity he created. Brooks repeatedly said a literacy program operated by Universal Humanities was in place, successful and even expanding beyond Georgia.
Also, when Brooks was president of the Georgia Association of Black Elected Officials, he deposited in a secret account money donated for GABEO’s voter education, voter registration and anti-violence programs and then moved those funds to his personal account. GABEO members did not know of the second account under the organization’s name.
Brooks avoided reporters after the sentencing Monday, leaving it to one of his lawyers to speak for him. “I didn’t think it was a case that deserved incarceration,” Barnes said.
Brooks has scheduled a news conference for Wednesday at Moore’s Ford Bridge in Walton County, where two black couples were lynched in 1943. Finding those responsible has been Brooks’ obsession for most of his adult life.
The judge said early records suggest that Brooks intended to operate a literacy program but never got it started She said he didn’t get rich as is common in fraud cases, but was using the money for daily expenses — gas, paying bills and food. Totenberg singled out one expense he claimed several times, meals at Captain D’s, a fast-food restaurant, as an example that he was not living lavishly.
The fraud came about as Brooks was juggling bills and trying to survive on his legislative salary, $17,300 a year plus $4,800 for expenses. “He should have directly requested a salary (from Universal Humanities),” Totenberg said.
The constant theme during four days of testimony preceding his sentencing, and even as the judge pronounced his punishment, was Brooks’ contribution to civil rights and bringing about significant changes in Georgia like removing the St. Andrew’s Cross from the state flag.
“We need his knowledge, his background and his presence,” said the Rev. C.T. Vivian, also one of the key members of the civil rights movement. “He’ll come out having had a year to think about the next steps for the community. He’ll use it to his advantage and when the year is up I think he’ll be re-energized.”
Totenberg said she decided on his punishment after weighing Brooks’ civil rights work, the likelihood he will not re-offend and his age against the seriousness of his crimes..
“While he may feel invincible at times… he is 70,” she said. “He, unfortunately, doesn’t have endless horizons in front of him.”
By tacking on a day to a one-year sentence Brooks can be released after he has served 85 percent of his sentence — about 10 1/2 months. Without it he would have had to serve every day of his sentence.
The practice of the federal prison system is to send inmates to a halfway house or put them on home confinement in the final months, and Totenberg said if that happened she wanted Brooks to use that time providing 250 hours of community service at schools or educational or youth programs.
“I’m very pleased the judge has responded to our pleas for mercy,” said the Rev. Joe Lowery, another civil rights icon. “I still think Tyrone needs to get some help. I think a man has to be a little imbalanced to do what he did, to ignore the law like that. I’m hopeful he’ll receive some kind of therapy to help him with his problem. He’s got to realize that without the tremendous community response he could have been in jail for several years. I hope he takes this opportunity to turn his life around.”
Staff writers Aaron Gould Sheinin and Christian Boone contributed to this article.
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