OPINION: Councilman Antonio Brown had a fast rise. Now a sudden fall?

On October 23, 2019, Councilman Antonio Brown visited a blighted apartment complex on Verbena Street in northwest Atlanta, where he talked with reporters. (Bob Andres / robert.andres@ajc.com)
On October 23, 2019, Councilman Antonio Brown visited a blighted apartment complex on Verbena Street in northwest Atlanta, where he talked with reporters. (Bob Andres / robert.andres@ajc.com)

Federal fraud charges put maverick Atlanta politician's career in question

Last week, federal prosecutors unveiled charges against Atlanta City Councilman Antonio Brown, the newest member of that august body, and charged him with making off with large sums of money.

No, Brown, who fancies himself a maverick and has made a name for himself in his 15-plus months in office, is not charged with public corruption. He is charged with bilking banks and credit card companies years before he came to office.

He vows to fight the charges and to keep on fighting The Man. But the charges could turn Brown, who is telegenic and ready-made for a microphone, into a City Hall footnote. A flash in the pan.

And the charges, if true, could demolish his narrative of the rags-to-riches entrepreneur, which was a storyline that helped him get elected in the first place. It might be that some of the money that made him look like a big deal really wasn’t his.

At the start of last year, few people in Atlanta City Council District 3, which is just west of downtown, had ever heard of Brown.

Sure, maybe some of the residents in this primarily black and largely poor district had heard of his fashion business LVL XIII (pronounced “level 13″), a now-mothballed enterprise created to peddle $1,200 sneakers and $95 T-shirts. But as a political being in this very political district, the then 34-year-old was a nonentity.

But with the death of longtime City Council member Ivory Young, the ambitious Brown saw opportunity — as did many others, including a former councilman, a school board member, a handful of activists and even Young’s widow. The absence of an incumbent in an off-year special election is like a lottery. But you have to be in it to win it, so the vacancy brought forward nine hopefuls for office.

City Council member Ivory Young several years ago, with Atlanta's then-mayor Kasim Reed behind him. Young died in November 2018. (HENRY TAYLOR / AJC)
City Council member Ivory Young several years ago, with Atlanta's then-mayor Kasim Reed behind him. Young died in November 2018. (HENRY TAYLOR / AJC)

Brown started winning over people immediately. He is handsome, likable and well-spoken, and the prospect of a successful businessman fighting for the downtrodden got traction. He came in second (outdistancing the third-place finisher by just three votes) in the election and went to a runoff against Byron Amos, a dutiful school board member trying to make the jump to City Hall.

Amos was backed by Mayor Keisha Lance Bottom’s forces because Amos seemed like he’d play along with others better than the crusading Brown. But the voters — at least those who bothered to come out — favored Brown’s anti-establishment posture. He won, earning 670 votes in a district with 40,000 residents.

He was good at pulling in donations, bringing in more than $100,000 in the mad-dash campaign and run-off election. Julian Bene, a good-government type and former member of Invest Atlanta, contributed $500.

“Antonio was the anti-machine candidate. Amos had pushed for the Gulch giveaway on the APS board,” Bene wrote in a text, referring to the billion-dollar tax break development project downtown. He added that in a debate, “Antonio said if it came back up at council he was a ‘No.’ Antonio has remained true to that reform line. The big vote since he joined council was the recent budget. He voted with (Councilwoman) Jen Ide & the other reformers to hold back $$$ to motivate police reform.”

But after Brown’s election he was embraced by insiders, getting campaign contributions from developers, the Georgia Aquarium, the Atlanta Hawks, Portman Holdings, and the Georgia Hotel and Lodging Association. Big money loves a winner, even one who will bark at them.

Colette Haywood, a leader in Neighborhood Planning Unit-L in Brown’s district, supported an opponent in the election. But Brown has won her over.

“When Anthony took office, I had no expectations; he was just a kid who just showed up,” she said. “But I was pleasantly surprised. Antonio is not afraid to go against the status quo. Anthony is the people’s councilman.”

Rev. Anthony Motley, pastor of Lindsay Street Baptist Church in the English Avenue neighborhood, has also become a fan. “I saw strong potential in him; he’s a gifted young man,” he said. “I have admired him for his courage, whether you agree with him or not.

“He hasn’t been all that good about following up on calls and texts, but he’s not afraid to take a position.”

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Veteran Councilman Howard Shook, who represents Buckhead, said, “Council was intrigued by him because he was so different and out in front of things that he was concerned about and wanted done. He had no concern about process. He is not patient.”

“But,” Shook added, “to pass anything, you need seven others who will agree with you.”

Brown has been embraced by the younger members of the council who chose not to speak publicly about him, and chose not to return calls. Brown, too, has declined to speak and his attorney hung up on a call.

Antonio Brown is sworn in as the newest member of the Atlanta City Council in April 2019. Brown won a special runoff election for the council’s District 3 seat. (Bob Andres / bandres@ajc.com)
Antonio Brown is sworn in as the newest member of the Atlanta City Council in April 2019. Brown won a special runoff election for the council’s District 3 seat. (Bob Andres / bandres@ajc.com)

But he has gone to Twitter to obliquely state his case, tweeting last week, “A ‘target’ is a small price to pay when walking alongside God.” This was after being indicted for the Triple Crown of Fraud: wire, mail and bank.

“Our people deserve to truly be free of oppression,” Brown wrote. “No one should have to choose between putting food on the table or keeping a roof over their head. The sacrifice for our people will always be worth it. #standwithme”

By “target” he is most likely referring to a number of people who contend U.S. Attorney B.J. Pak & Co. are wreaking retribution on Brown for fighting the power and calling for police reform.

However, knowing the pace of Pak’s ongoing investigation into City Hall corruption — glacial! — then one must assume that Brown was either a new councilman or not even a member when the feds started turning over rocks.

The charges allege that Brown lied about his income while applying for more than $60,000 in auto loans to buy stylish rides like a Range Rover and a Mercedes Benz C300, and that he fraudulently opened credit cards, which he then used for thousands of dollars in personal purchases.

The feds allege that Brown later lied about being a victim of identity theft to avoid repaying the money.

“At least Trump had the decency to declare bankruptcy,” cracked Matthew Cardinale, who ran unsuccessfully for the District 3 post last year.

Cardinale, who operates Atlanta Progressive News, has attended most City Council meetings in the past 15 years. Of Brown’s campaign, he said, “He sold his newness. The voters wanted something new. But something new is not always good.”

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