Jacksonville, FL — The defense is calling just four witnesses to present their side in the federal fraud trial of now-former Congresswoman Corrine Brown- including Brown herself.
The other three witnesses who have testified on Brown's behalf spanned personal, professional, and civic bonds, but were united in their trust of Brown and belief that the Congresswoman was passionate about serving her constituents and causes.
Rontel Batie started as an intern in Brown’s office in 2010, being placed there through the Congressional Black Caucus Foundation. He later worked as a full-time staffer as well, so he saw Brown on and off over the span of several years.
Throughout that time, he says Brown had the reputation for getting there before most people, and staying well after others had left. He described her as an “expert” on the causes she was involved in, especially veteran’s issues. Brown’s Defense Attorney James Smith III asked Batie if he noticed Brown’s age starting to catch up to her, and if that made her rely more and more on her staff. While he says he saw the impact on Brown physically- for example she wouldn’t walk nearly as much as years prior- he says she remained the “expert” on legislative issues. He did add that the staff worked to take care of her personal needs, so that she could focus on the core responsibilities of a lawmaker.
Batie also believes he has attended an event Brown hosted in conjunction with the CBCF's Annual Legislative Conference. These receptions during this event have been criticized by prosecutors, who argue they were parties for Brown funded through donations to a "sham" charity. Batie said there was always a lot of education and networking taking place, although on further questioning, it seemed he had actually attended an official veteran's reception hosted by Brown on Capitol Hill, rather than the event that's not formally affiliated with the conference.
UNF President John Delaney, who’s a former Jacksonville Mayor, knew Brown dating back to the 1980s, but grew closer to her in the early 1990s, when he started working at City Hall.
“She’s bluntly honest,” he says.
He spoke about Brown working tirelessly to help with some big things for the City, including repairs to the Fuller Warren Bridge and the construction of the federal courthouse.
Another woman, Brenda Simmons Hutchinson, worked with Brown through the community service oriented group The Links. She says Brown and another women were behind a project to get laptops for young female students they were counseling, and it was rewarding to see those computers be delivered.
“I’m still smiling because I can still see the smile on their faces,” she says.
Simmons Hutchinson says her grandson is also one of the students who was chosen to go on an exchange trip to China which Brown organized, describing that as an “opportunity of a lifetime”.
Prosecutors have previously questioned the funding for both of those programs, as well as the selection process on who was chosen to go on the China trip. Simmons Hutchinson did not speak to the funding and was unaware of how students were chosen for the exchange program.
On cross examination, a question prosecutors posed to all of the parties was whether any of them were aware of Brown's financial situation. None were.
Prosecutors called a total of 40 witnesses over seven days to make their case. The defense is not obligated to make any case presentation, so the lower number of witnesses is not any indication of the strength of their arguments. The burden to prove the charges falls on the government.
Brown, her Chief of Staff Ronnie Simmons, and the head of One Door For Education Carla Wiley are accused of soliciting more than $800,000 in donations to One Door, promoting the organization as a charity when it was not. The trio allegedly used the money for their own personal expenses, although Wiley says she operated separate from Simmons and Brown. Both Simmons and Wiley have pleaded guilty and previously testified for the prosecution.
Brown has maintained through this process that she was unaware of what Simmons and Wiley were doing, and that she trusted Simmons to handle her affairs and he betrayed that trust.
WOKV is inside of the federal courthouse following the latest testimony, as Brown herself takes the stand.