OPINION: Indicted? Why should that derail a run for mayor?

Atlanta City Councilman Antonio Brown poses for a photo with his supporters following a news conference where he announced his bid for mayor of Atlanta outside of Atlanta City Hall, Friday, May 14, 2021. (Alyssa Pointer / Atlanta Journal-Constitution via AP)
Atlanta City Councilman Antonio Brown poses for a photo with his supporters following a news conference where he announced his bid for mayor of Atlanta outside of Atlanta City Hall, Friday, May 14, 2021. (Alyssa Pointer / Atlanta Journal-Constitution via AP)

Credit: Alyssa Pointer

Credit: Alyssa Pointer

You’ve got to hand it to Atlanta City Councilman Antonio Brown, the guy is not lacking in audacity, self-assuredness or sense of purpose.

Those are traits often needed to climb the rungs of political office, which is what Brown is trying to do. He is running for mayor.

But there’s a wrinkle, a big one, one so large that a bucket of Downy fabric softener can’t straighten it out: Brown is under indictment on multiple federal fraud charges. Prosecutors allege that Brown, who touted his entrepreneurial skills when running for City Council in 2019, scammed his way into tens of thousands of dollars in loans and credit card purchases and then falsely claimed he was the victim of identity theft so he could skate on those payments.

A Range Rover AND and a Mercedes C300 were involved in the midst of all this. Again, allegedly. So, no one can accuse Brown of thinking small.

A politician getting indicted is nothing new. But usually, it happens after their election. But Councilman Brown is a self-styled maverick, and conventional thinking is not going to hold him down. So, during this campaign season for Atlanta mayor, reporters will have to drop a paragraph into their stories explaining “... is under federal indictment ...” and then carry on with the news of that particular day.

Normally, one would not expect someone under federal criminal indictment to fare well, but there is a precedent for success: Victor Hill.

Hill, the Clayton County sheriff who was defeated in the 2008 election, conducted his political comeback to office in 2012 while under indictment on dozens of fraud charges. Hill won that election and later proceeded to prevail in court (although he faces new criminal charges, this time for allegedly mistreating prisoners, and was suspended by Gov. Brian Kemp on Wednesday).

Brown, in an interview Tuesday, said he wouldn’t run for mayor if he thought he’d one day be wearing a prison jumpsuit.

“I would not run for mayor of Atlanta unless I thought I would be vindicated,” he told me. “I have operated with the highest of integrity.”

Supporters cheer as Atlanta City Councilman Antonio Brown announces his run for Atlanta mayor during a news conference outside of Atlanta City Hall in Atlanta, Friday, May 14, 2021. (Alyssa Pointer / Atlanta Journal-Constitution via AP)
Supporters cheer as Atlanta City Councilman Antonio Brown announces his run for Atlanta mayor during a news conference outside of Atlanta City Hall in Atlanta, Friday, May 14, 2021. (Alyssa Pointer / Atlanta Journal-Constitution via AP)

Credit: Alyssa Pointer

Credit: Alyssa Pointer

He noted that he approached the feds last year with allegations of “a public corruption matter in my district that had been going on for more than 10 years.” Brown was referring to going to the federal authorities last year as a whistleblower, telling them about the possible misuse of HUD funds in an undisclosed case.

But if Brown is a conman, as the feds allege, then he isn’t an especially good one because they pulled a con job on him.

Last summer, a postal inspector came to Brown’s apartment under the ruse of listening to his story about the mismanaged HUD funds. Later in that conversation, the agents then sprung it on Brown that he was being investigated for alleged fraud that occurred before his 2019 election to council. The councilman spoke to them for an hour before another team of agents arrived to search his “modest” apartment (Brown’s legal team calls it that, just so no one thinks he has gotten rich).

Brown’s lawyers are fighting to throw out what he said in that interview, saying that because of the agent’s “coercion and trickery, Mr. Brown’s statement was not voluntary and should be suppressed.”

His legal team says the agents should have given Brown his Miranda rights and that he was, in fact, in custody when being questioned in his living room. “If a suspect is ‘free to leave’ his home to escape police inquiry,” they noted in a legal motion, “where in fact does he go?”

In fact, if he walked out into the hallway, he would have run into the search team.

Brown’s lawyers argued that in court in April. U.S. Magistrate Judge Alan Baverman made a preliminary finding that Brown was not in custody, meaning the statements would stand. However, the judge told both sides he would entertain more convincing before making a final decision.

Three weeks after that hearing, Brown was on the steps of City Hall announcing his run for mayor.

Brown is surely the most activist-minded council member and was a presence at many of the protests last summer. He also was on the losing side of a narrow council vote to withhold some of the police department’s budget until some reforms were met. Brown’s campaign hinges on “re-imagining public safety” and fighting poverty.

“No one’s talking about addressing the root of that crime, that people are struggling to survive every day that they wake up,” he said. Brown spoke about starting a $250 million bond program that would be paid off by payroll deductions of those who are trained and employed. He talked about going after speculators who are buying up homes in transitional neighborhoods and who are leaving the properties to rot.

That’s all great, but you must get elected first and that’s hard to do with federal charges hanging out there, right?

Brown says he is opposed by the Powers That Be.

“I speak truth to power, regardless of any backlash that may come,” he told me. “I knew there was a sacrifice to come.”

Dignitaries file past a large portrait of Ivory Lee Young Jr. at the start of his funeral service in the Martin Luther King Jr. International Chapel on Morehouse College campus Dec. 1, 2018.  The four-term city councilman from west Atlanta, longtime architect, ordained minister and family man died Nov. 16 from cancer at age 56. (Steve Schaefer for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution)
Dignitaries file past a large portrait of Ivory Lee Young Jr. at the start of his funeral service in the Martin Luther King Jr. International Chapel on Morehouse College campus Dec. 1, 2018. The four-term city councilman from west Atlanta, longtime architect, ordained minister and family man died Nov. 16 from cancer at age 56. (Steve Schaefer for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution)

Brown came to office in 2019 during a special election following the death of longtime Councilman Ivory Young. Brown landed in second place by a handful of votes and then won the two-candidate runoff, earning just 670 votes in a district representing some 40,000 residents. He noted that Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms and other councilmembers supported his opponent, disliking his “outsider” status. He claims “the establishment” conspired to knock him out of that race because of a tax lien he had.

“People are tired of the establishment that has run this city for years and left behind the least of these,” he said. “The idea is to be elected, you have to be born and raised here, went to high school here and lived here all your life.”

Actually, it seems that having attended an Atlanta high school or being a member of a key frat is somewhere in the city code as a prerequisite for elective office.

So, Councilman, do you actually think they’re out to get you because you’re a threat to the political standing order?

“I’m not at liberty to say yes or no,” he said. “It’s not far-fetched. BJay Pak was a state representative before he was a U.S. attorney. It’s not far-fetched to say our politics are intertwined with our legal system.”

I contacted Pak, who ran the prosecutor’s office when Brown was indicted. He said: “The only Antonio Brown I have ever heard of was the former Steelers wide receiver. Also, politics never played a role in any decisions that were made during my tenure” as the U.S. attorney.

When it comes down to it, Brown defers to a higher power often claimed by those in trouble: “When God leads you, you don’t question God. I’m surrendering to the process.”

Like I said, he does not lack for audacity.

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