Jacksonville, Fl. - What he did was at the direction of now-former Congresswoman Corrine Brown.
“I usually don’t tell her no,” says Brown’s former Chief of Staff Ronnie Simmons.
“Is that the culture in the office?” asked Assistant US Attorney A. Tysen Duva.
“Yes,” Simmons says.
In the ongoing federal fraud trial, Brown’s attorney has been building a case about betrayal, saying she put her trust in Simmons and increasingly relied on him to handle her business and financial needs.
Now, Simmons is telling his side in testimony Wednesday.
FULL COVERAGE: Federal fraud trial of now-former Congresswoman Corrine Brown
Simmons is one of two people who have taken plea deals in connection with this case, with the other being One Door For Education President Carla Wiley, who testified Monday. Prosecutors claim the three were involved in soliciting more than $800,000 in charitable donations to One Door, and using the money for personal expenses instead.
An early focus of Simmons’ testimony was ATM withdrawals he made from the One Door bank account, ultimately depositing most of the cash in Brown’s account. The first one came in September 2012, and there were many that followed. The defense has previously argued that Simmons could have done these transactions without Brown’s knowledge, and that Brown didn’t know where the money she was getting was coming from. Simmons says that’s not the case.
“All the others [transactions] on this chart- did you just do that on you own, or did the Congresswoman ask you to do it,” asked Duva.
Simmons responded that Brown directed him.
“If you were going to take the money for yourself, what would be the better way to do that,” asked Duva.
“Deposit it in my account and keep it,” Simmons said.
There were additionally dozens of ATM withdrawals that didn’t have any apparent matching deposit in Brown’s account. Simmons says, in about two-thirds of those transactions, he gave Brown all of the cash directly. In the other third, he says he got some of the money, but always gave some to Brown as well.
Simmons also told the court he was unaware of money Brown allegedly received from other organizations before One Door, including the Community Rehabilitation Center non-profit. Prior testimony has shown checks written off that account or a few closely affiliated were ultimately deposited as cash with Brown as far back as 2010. Prosecutors are working to show a pattern of Brown taking money from these organizations, independent of any involvement by Simmons.
On cross-examination, though, Brown’s attorney James Smith III pointed out that one of the checks in question mentioned Simmons’ mother in the memo line. Simmons told the court he and his family had previously received money from the CRC’s Executive Director Reginald Gaffney, who he had known for about three decades. Simmons testified he didn’t believe his mother had ultimately received money in connection to that specific check.
One Door came forward while Simmons and Wiley were boating with a few other people and talking about an annual reception for Brown in conjunction with the Congressional Black Caucus Annual Legislative Conference. Simmons said he needed a non-profit to host the event because it’s easier to collect money through a 501(c)(3). Simmons says One Door was a very interesting option.
“Primarily, because I would be able to control it,” he testified.
According to the testimony of Simmons and Wiley, they would both wind up stealing money from the organization- independent of each other. Wiley had pleaded guilty to transferring about $140,000 online, while Simmons took control of the debit card and checks. Wiley says she only found out Simmons was using One Door money after a romantic trip they took together to South Florida where she assuming he was treating her out of her pocket, but it turned out he was using the One Door account. Simmons says he wasn’t aware of Wiley taking money until federal investigators came to him.
The management of that account- and others in Simmons control- was a big question for the defense.
The defense has been working to put distance between Brown and any knowledge of wrongdoing. In the opening statement, the defense said Brown trusted Simmons to handle her money, and that it wasn’t uncommon for her to see deposits in to her account, because she would pay for her own travel or expenses relating to her work, and needed to be reimbursed. Simmons described Brown as heavily engaged with her constituents, including flying back to the District almost every week.
“In order to be able to accomplish this task, she relied upon you?” asked Smith.
“Yes,” Simmons responded.
He says there is a proper way to do those reimbursements, and this is not it.
The defense is not questioning that Brown solicited money for One Door, but they’re trying to show Brown did not know those donations would be going to things other than charity.
Smith had Simmons confirm that, not only would he write checks off the One Door account- by signing Wiley’s name- but he would also sign checks from the Friends of Corrine Brown campaign account- where he would sign the Treasurer’s name- and Florida Leadership PAC which was affiliated with Brown. Simmons says he generally would sign the check and give it to Brown, without the rest filled out. He says he wasn’t aware of what happened to the checks after that, and he never asked.
Prosecutors asked why Simmons didn’t just write the checks to Brown directly.
“That would have been too obvious,” he said.
One of the most heated lines from prosecutors came when looking at the $330,000 in One Door funds that allegedly went to hosting various events. During cross-examination, defense attorney James Smith III had Simmons talk about the intent of those events being to raise money for scholarships and charity. Simmons says they brought donors together and hoped there would be giving.
Duva asked when Simmons found out that they weren’t actually raising scholarship money, and he said they would see that after pretty much every event. Simmons said the events were always in the hole.
“I can’t help that,” Simmons said.
Duva pressed how long it would have taken them to make changes to benefit charity, and Simmons wasn’t sure.
In fact, Simmons confirmed they were making withdrawals from One Door during one of the occasions where they were fundraising for a legitimate trip- sending some students to China. There was also an instance where they were soliciting money to One Door after an event in an effort to cover some more of the expenses. That involved telling the donor the check would go to a separate Foundation, but to write the check to One Door. The donor ultimately decided to cut out the middle man.
This comes after Simmons testified Brown never asked about the progress of any of the charitable work One Door was reported to be doing, and further, that there were not in fact raising money for scholarships, computers, or other charitable projects. There were also no photo ops or media opportunities that you may typically expect from a politician that’s promoting a charitable organization.
Simmons says he came to know One Door was not a registered non-profit, but he didn’t “care”, because it was an entity that he could control. When he found out, he says he did tell Brown, but he further testified that he thought the problem had been resolved.
Simmons and Brown were jointly indicted in July 2016, with Simmons facing 19 charges overall. He ultimately pleaded guilty to two counts- conspiracy to commit mail and wire fraud and theft of government funds. The conspiracy charge deals with the misuse of One Door funds, while the theft charges deals with a House of Representatives job Simmons got for his sister, where she did little to no actual work. In the plea agreement, Simmons admits to taking some of the $735,000 his sister received from that job over the years, and using it for his own expenses.
Simmons could be sentenced to twenty years in prison on the conspiracy charge and ten years in prison on the theft charge. He is hoping for leniency as a result of his testimony and cooperation with the government- even going so far as to say he hopes to avoid prison altogether- but stated during his testimony that nothing has been promised by the government at this point.
Smith countered that Simmons has been promised the other charges would be dropped. He then further focused in on the fact that Simmons has to provide “substantial assistance” to the government in their case.
“So telling the truth just isn’t enough?” Smith asked.
“Correct,” Simmons responded.
Simmons at one point told Brown that he was feeling pressured to plead, according to Smith. Simmons said prosecutors were threatening to indict his sister, and he also feared for the future of Brown’s daughter, Shantrel. Duva says there’s nothing in the plea agreement that binds them to whether or not another party is charged in this case.
“Did you plead guilty because you are guilty?” Duva asked.
“Yes,” Simmons responded.
Simmons says after reading through all of the discovery and dealing with the investigation and subsequent case for more than a year, he realized the right thing to do was plead.
“Tell the truth and get it over with,” he says.
Brown is scheduled to testify late Thursday, with the prosecution wrapping up it’s case mid-morning Thursday.
Simmons was measured and composed through most of his testimony. He kept his attention focused on the attorneys and lawyers, and didn’t appear to look over at Brown for any period of time. Brown listened closely to the testimony, occasionally conferring with her attorney or taking notes. Simmons described their relationship as “extremely close”, after having worked together for more than two decades.
WOKV is in the courtroom following all of the developing testimony. Get frequent updates by following our reporter Stephanie Brown on Twitter.