Jacksonville, FL — Was it corruption or betrayal?
There is a fundamental question that’s been brought to light through opening statements at the federal fraud trial of now-former Congresswoman Corrine Brown- exactly how much did she know about her personal finances and affairs. The question becomes central, as her defense paints the picture of a Chief of Staff in over his head and acting behind Brown’s back, while prosecutors say it would be impossible for her not to know about the source of the tens of thousands of dollars she was allegedly benefiting from.
CONTINUING COVERAGE: The trial of now-former Congresswoman Corrine Brown
Assistant US Attorney A. Tysen Duva started his argument talking about Brown being hailed as a trailblazer for her historic election in the 90s. He spoke about the committees she served in her more than two decades with the House of Representatives, and the reputation she built to deliver for her constituents.
“We wish that was the end of the story,” Duva said. “There’s another side- corruption, greed, and a significant entitlement attitude. That’s what this case is about. It’s about lying, cheating, and stealing.”
Duva says Brown leveraged her position and relationships she built as a Congresswoman to solicit money for a "bogus" charity "One Door for Education", without ever telling donors the money wasn't being used on scholarships and other things to help disadvantaged children. Instead, prosecutors say the money was being used for parties, travel, shopping trips, and more of Brown and a few others.
Duva says Brown’s Chief of Staff Ronnie Simmons would frequently drive to an ATM in his Virginia hometown and withdraw the maximum allowed in a day- $800- from the One Door account, then depositing a like sum in to one of Brown’s bank accounts or giving the cash to Brown directly.
“When we dug even further, we saw this was a way of life,” he says.
Duva says Brown was driven by finances- with three properties and a shopping habit.
“She simply spent way more than she took in, she became accustomed to this money coming in,” He says.
Brown would also throw "lavish" events using One Door funds, according to Duva, about $330,000 overall. The US Attorney's Office says donations to the group funded a golf tournament at TPC Sawgrass, a luxury box at a Jaguars game in DC, a luxury box in a Beyonce concert, and more. The money would also allegedly be used for an event at an annual conference, which Duva called a party for Brown to "be celebrated". No fundraising was done at these events, according to Duva.
In his opening statement, though, Brown's attorney James Smith III said Brown was not responsible for event planning, travel, or even much of the day-to-day operations in her office- Simmons was, and the jury needs to decide if they can trust him.
“She trusted that he would always look out for her and care for her,” Smith says.
Smith says Brown first offered to be Simmons’ mentor after he and her daughter broke up, but remained friends. Simmons first worked in Brown’s travel agency, then eventually her campaign for the Florida House, then Congress. Smith says Brown looked at Simmons as a son, and was unaware that many thought he was in over his head. Rather, she trusted him to run her staff, keep her schedule, plan her travel and more. Simmons also had access to Brown’s bank accounts, according to Smith.
“As far as she knew, everything was running smoothly,” Smith says.
Smith says Simmons was always developing “schemes”, though, to fund the lifestyle he had become accustomed to. One such scheme involved getting a House of Representatives job for his sister by telling Brown she was sick and needed money. In reality, he says Simmons took much of the money over many years, and the relative didn’t do much work. So, when Simmons met and ultimately started having a relationship with Carla Wiley, the President of One Door, the opportunity for another scheme “fell in to his lap”.
“The two of them did that, on their own, without any encouragement or direction from Congresswoman Brown,” Smith says.
He says Brown solicited donations for a group she had every reason to believe was credible, because Simmons had vouched for it, and she trusted him. Even when Wiley ultimately took a plea deal, Simmons maintained his innocence, so Brown still had trust that he had done the right thing, according to Smith. Then, Simmons took a plea deal as well.
“She finally, finally had a chance to see clearly the betrayal that some in her inner circle feared,” Smith says.
Simmons and Wiley are both going to testify. Smith reminded the jurors that they will have to consider that testimony carefully, because of the plea deals Wiley and Simmons were given in exchange for their cooperation with the prosecution. He added that Brown herself will testify, because she can tell her story best, and he wants the jury to weigh Brown's "well-earned reputation" against that of her two alleged co-conspirators.
And on the question of how Brown could have not known about the source of frequent large deposits in her accounts- the alleged One Door money Simmons would deposit- Smith says Brown traveled frequently for her work in Congress, and she would front the money and get reimbursed.
Prosecutors say that’s just not the case.
“The facts are going to show that Corrine Brown knew exactly what she was doing,” Duva said.
He adds that there are clearly established lies which will speak to that, including that Brown is also accused of underreporting her income and overreporting her charitable giving on House financial disclosures and tax returns.
If the One Door donors had known their money was not going to charitable education purposes, Duva says they wouldn't have donated in the first place. He also says Brown using her influence and position as a Congresswoman was key toward soliciting the large donations- many ten thousand dollars or more.
Smith says Brown can only be convicted of fraud if she knowingly lied to the donors when she asked for the donations. He says she didn’t, though, and had instead been fooled by Simmons. Smith says Simmons fooled investigators and prosecutors too.
“Don’t let him fool you,” Smith said to the jury.
The courtroom itself was full for opening statements Wednesday, despite US Magistrate Judge Timothy Corrigan adding extra chairs in anticipation of a crowd. Those who did not secure a seat- which were first come, first served- were allowed in to an overflow room where there were audio and video feeds set up.
WOKV is inside of the federal courtroom and updating you frequently through the proceedings. This is a developing story that will be updated in to the evening.