State Rep. Tyrone Brooks resigned his seat in the House on Thursday, hours before pleading guilty to one count of federal tax fraud and no contest to five more charges of mail and wire fraud.
Thursday’s hearing marks the close of a criminal case that began with a 30-count indictment more than two years ago. It also means that Brooks, who was hired as a young man by the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., awoke on Thursday as a state lawmaker and ended it as a 69-year-old convicted felon.
Brooks originally pleaded not guilty to the charges.
The veteran Atlanta Democrat and civil rights worker showed little emotion as he answered dozens of questions from U.S. District Judge Amy Totenberg and left without speaking to reporters.
“It is a sad day I know for justice,” Totenberg told Brooks near the end of the hearing. “Because you have played an active role in trying to improve justice in this state.”
Sentencing is months away
Brooks faces up to three years in federal prison for the tax charge and 20 years for each of the mail and wire fraud charges, as well as up to $1.5 million in fines plus restitution.
He will not learn his sentence for several months. Totenberg ordered a pre-sentencing report be prepared within 70 days. Afterward, acting U.S. Attorney John Horn declined to say whether his office will recommend Brooks serve time in prison.
The government accused Brooks of systematically defrauding corporate and personal donors, from whom he solicited contributions for a pair of organizations he led. He asked for, and often received, large corporate checks from Atlanta business titans Coca-Cola, Georgia Pacific Corp., Georgia Power and Northside Hospital to fund his work through the Universal Humanities charity and the Georgia Association of Black Elected Officials.
“Representative Tyrone Brooks raised approximately $1 million for Universal Humanities and GABEO,” Assistant U.S. Attorney Kurt Erskine said Thursday. “In the process, Representative Brooks falsely represented to donors” where the money was going.
Instead of going to literacy programs and to fight for social justice, Erskine said, Brooks used much of the money for his own personal expenses.
Defense: never intended to deceive
Brooks’ attorney Thomas Hawker, however, told the judge that Brooks never intended to defraud anyone. That is the basis of Brooks’ no contest plea to the five charges of wire and mail fraud. It means Brooks acknowledges that the government likely has the evidence to persuade a jury to convict him but that he does not admit guilt.
“There is a good amount of dispute about whether there was ever intent to deceive,” another of Brooks’ attorneys, former Gov. Roy Barnes, told reporters after the hearing.
But Barnes acknowledged that Brooks did, in fact, file a false tax return for tax year 2011 — the charge to which he pleaded guilty.
“On the tax matter, he should have paid some taxes,” Barnes said. “You either paid or you didn’t. He has always said and contended that there was never intent to deceive.”
Brooks has been a civil rights activist for nearly 60 years, first for King’s Southern Christian Leadership Conference and later an array of civil rights groups and labor unions. In more recent years, he’s been most active in trying to find those responsible for the 1946 lynching of two black couples in Walton County.
Brooks alleges link to lynchings
After his indictment in 2013, Brooks said he was being targeted for his work on the lynchings at Moore’s Ford because there was evidence that federal agents were involved.
In his resignation letter to Gov. Nathan Deal on Thursday, Brooks said he was stepping down from the General Assembly to devote his energy to that work.
Suspects and witnesses are dying off or falling ill, Brooks wrote.
“That’s why I have to devote all my time and energy to this movement before my time is up,” he wrote.
Others point to work on civil rights
Reaction from fellow activists and elected officials reflected Brooks’ past work in the world of civil and human rights.
“Tyrone Brooks has done tremendous good in this state,” Joe Beasley, the Southeastern director of the Rainbow/PUSH Coalition, said following the hearing. “I don’t know anyone who has done more to bring positive change through the years.”
U.S. Rep. David Scott spoke to reporters Thursday morning after an event at the MARTA Five Points station to support transportation funding. Scott spoke after Brooks resigned but before his plea hearing.
“I love Tyrone Brooks,” Scott said. “I hate to hear that. He’s been there for people in great need, not only as a state legislator but as a civil rights leader. He’s a fountain, he’s a gold mine of caring for the people of Georgia and this nation.”
Election to fill seat yet to be set
But even as he was fighting to bring to justice those responsible for one of the worst unsolved crimes in Georgia history, the government said Brooks was also apparently funneling money from Universal Humanities and GABEO for his personal use.
Barnes again said Brooks never intended to deceive anyone and said the money he gave himself was for basic necessities.
“He’s gotten used to eating and driving an automobile,” he said.
Brooks’ House District 55 seat will remain vacant until a special election to be called by Secretary of State Brian Kemp.
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Staff writers Andria Simmons and Bill Torpy contributed to this article.