For nearly a decade, state Rep. Tyrone Brooks Sr. took donations from corporations and individuals, saying he wanted to help children learn to read, prevent crime and get African-Americans registered to vote.
But a 30-count federal indictment handed up Thursday accuses the Atlanta Democrat and longtime civil rights activist of taking almost $1 million of that money to pay for home repairs, dry cleaning, lawn service, entertainment and other personal uses.
Brooks was charged with mail, wire and tax fraud.
“It’s a very disappointing day,” U.S. Attorney Sally Yates told a news conference. “Representative Brooks has done much good in his life, both as a state legislator and civil rights leader. … He’s been a powerful voice for change in our state, change that needed to happen.”
But Brooks’ good works, Yates said, “didn’t give him a license to steal.”
When asked Thursday if he had broken the law, Brooks said, “Not to my knowledge. I don’t want to discuss it right now.”
Brooks, first elected to the state House in 1980, said he will give a statement soon at the Moore’s Ford Bridge in Monroe, where two young black couples were lynched in 1946.
In February, when The Atlanta Journal-Constitution first reported the FBI was investigating Brooks, the lawmaker said he believed the probe was being stirred up because of the attention he and the Georgia Association of Black Elected Officials were giving the unsolved murders.
At a Feb. 5 news conference at the Capitol, Brooks said if he had not been pressing the FBI to charge those who were responsible for the lynchings, “I would not be standing here with you today.”
Yates said Brooks, 67, will be allowed to turn himself in and will soon appear before a U.S. magistrate for his arraignment.
According to the indictment, Brooks misappropriated hundreds of thousands of dollars from two charities: Universal Humanities, and GABEO, the organization of elected officials of which Brooks was president.
Brooks established Universal Humanities in the early 1990s and from 1995 through 2012 he solicited contributions to combat illiteracy in disadvantaged communities in Georgia and across the Southeast. He raised more than $780,000 in donations, including $400,000 from Coca-Cola, $140,000 from Georgia-Pacific and $240,000 from Northside Hospital.
But Brooks did not use any of the money to address literacy, the indictment alleges. Universal Humanities had no staff and no office; it hired no instructors and conducted no programs for students, the indictment says.
Instead, Brooks is accused of using most of the money he raised to pay for personal expenses for himself and his family. These included spending the money on lawn care, personal credit card bills, a $500 check to a relative for a Christmas gift, electronic equipment, jewelry and payments on personal loans, the indictment alleges.
Brooks accomplished this by transferring the money Universal Humanities took in, almost immediately, to a personal bank account, the indictment says.
The indictment accuses Brooks of also using money he solicited for GABEO to pay personal expenses.
Brooks, elected GABEO’s president in 1993, secretly opened a second GABEO bank account and made himself the sole signatory, the indictment says, and deposited the donations into the undisclosed account. Between 2002 and 2012 alone, Brooks allegedly deposited about $300,000 into the undisclosed account.
GABEO’s board, the indictment says, was unaware of the scheme. Brooks told donors the money would be used to support GABEO’s operations and programs. Coca-Cola gave $96,500, Georgia Power contributed $37,000 and the Teamsters gave $36,000.
Yates, the U.S. Attorney, said GABEO’s donors and board members were completely unaware of what was happening: “They are a victim here.”
Efforts to reach GABEO vice president Elaine Lucas and treasurer Henry Ficklin were unsuccessful.
Coca-Cola spokesman Kent Landers said, “We are cooperating with the relevant law enforcement agencies on this matter and it would be inappropriate for us to comment.”
Georgia-Pacific spokesman Greg Guest would not comment on the allegations but said the company’s foundation contributed to Universal Humanities as part of its efforts to promote literacy. The company will continue to cooperate with investigators, he said.
Veronica Hyman-Pillot, special agent in charge of the IRS office in Atlanta, explained how agents built the case against Brooks: “We followed the money.”
Brooks reported income of about $35,000 annually from 2008 through 2011 and failed to account for the hundreds of thousands of dollars he allegedly misappropriated from the two charities, she said.
Brooks began his civil rights work at age 15 when he volunteered at the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. In 1967, he became a full-time staffer at the SCLC and worked for Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. He would also work under the Rev. Ralph David Abernathy and the Rev. Joseph Lowery and hold local and national SCLC positions.
Brooks participated in numerous protests. Since 1960, he has been jailed 66 times for his civil rights work, his legislative website says.
When reached Thursday, Lowery said of Brooks’ indictment: “I’m sorry about his trials and tribulations. I’ll hold fast to the premise that he’s innocent until proven guilty in our system of justice. He’s been a good public servant, and I hope he’s innocent.”
Edward DuBose, president of the Georgia State Conference of the NAACP, said he would “withhold judgment on whether the indictment is true or not, because obviously I don’t have the facts the U.S. Attorney has.”
DuBose was among those who previously called the investigation a “witch hunt.” On Thursday, DuBose said he will not “back completely down” from his concern that the case is retribution for Brooks’ work to bring the Moore’s Ford killers to justice.
“Tyrone has helped so many people, I think this is a sad day for Georgia,” DuBose said.
Brooks represents House District 63, which includes parts of Fulton and Douglas counties, but he could lose his seat.
Under guidelines set by the state Constitution, Gov. Nathan Deal will name a three-person panel to review the case, Deal spokesman Brian Robinson said.
The panel will consist of Attorney General Sam Olens and a senator and representative selected by Deal. If the panel finds that the indictment would affect Brooks’ ability to serve his district, Deal must suspend him from office.
The seat would stay open until the next regularly occurring election, and Brooks would continue to receive his $17,000 legislative salary.