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Former Rep. Corrine Brown, Chief of Staff aim to avoid prison time

Former Rep. Corrine Brown, Chief of Staff aim to avoid prison time

Former Rep. Corrine Brown, Chief of Staff aim to avoid prison time
Photo Credit: Action News Jax
Former Congresswoman Corrine Brown (right) and her former Chief of Staff Ronnie Simmons (left) outside of the federal courthouse in Jacksonville.

Former Rep. Corrine Brown, Chief of Staff aim to avoid prison time

Prosecutors still aren’t releasing exactly how much time they’re recommending former Northeast Florida Congresswoman Corrine Brown spend in prison following 18 fraud-related convictions, but Brown’s defense says guidelines call for between 7 years and 3 months and 9 years.

The defense is hoping for probation with community service. They’ll argue that in federal court during her sentencing hearing Thursday, November 16th, but have now submitted a sentencing memo outlining some of their arguments. As part of the sentencing memo, the defense also submitted a “comprehensive mitigation report” prepared by a mitigation expert who served as a Probation Officer for more than 20 years, Carlos Dawson. 

FULL COVERAGE: The trial of former Congresswoman Corrine Brown

Brown’s attorney James Smith III says probation would be the “reasonable” sentence for a number of reasons, including Brown’s personal history and character and how her case compares with other public integrity cases. 

The memo describes Brown as “one of the greatest soldiers” of the fight against racism, prejudice, and discrimination in the US. It also highlights her “decades of public service” as an advocate for people of all races. The defense plans to present “dozens” of witnesses who will speak to the positive impact Brown has had on their lives, according to the memo. 

Her ties to others- specifically her family- are more reasons the court should give a more lenient sentence, according to the defense. Smith argues Brown coordinates care for her elderly mother who suffers dementia. The mitigation report says Brown will also need to provide support for her daughter, who has undergone a thyroidectomy and still needs to have a hysterectomy. 

The defense further argues Brown is not at risk for committing more crime. Part of the reason for this is her age- she will be 71 at the time of her sentencing hearing- and lack of prior criminal activity. She has also performed 16 months of pretrial release without incident, according to the mitigation report. Smith also notes the repercussions this trial has had on her personally. 

“Corrine Brown’s conduct, her personal characteristics and accomplishments, and the humiliation and ostracization she has already experienced during the trial demonstrate that a term of probation with a condition of community service is the appropriate sentence,” the memo says. 

The defense says Brown will never hold public office again because of what’s happened, so there is no risk she will commit another public integrity offense. Her “mental and emotional condition” also warrants more leniency, according to the mitigation report, however there are no further details available on the nature of that condition. That report further says Brown has at least 14 confirmed medical diagnoses, including recent problems with memory loss, the possibility of glaucoma, and untreated sleep apnea. 

Prosecutors noted in their sentencing memo that no other comparable case they’ve studied resulted in a sentence of probation. The defense says those other public integrity cases do show that sentencing below the recommended guidelines is justified, especially because Brown committed “the least egregious” crimes compared to the other defendants. The defense also draws a comparison between Brown’s case and that of her two co-defendants- Brown’s Chief of Staff Ronnie Simmons and the President of the sham charity “One Door For Education” Carla Wiley- saying they benefitted more from the fraud than Brown, so it would be improper for her to face the harshest sentence. 

“While Ms. Wiley and Mr. Simmons did plead guilty, their cases do not have the extensive mitigating and extenuating factors that are present in this case. The United States would have to concede that neither Carla Wiley nor Ronnie Simmons have the extensive record of good works and public service,” the memo says. 

The mitigation report also says, when examining fraud cases more broadly, there are instances where probation is included in the sentence. That report further says Brown did not create or manage “One Door”, which was used to solicit hundreds of thousands of dollars in donations that the trio used instead for their own personal expenses. In addition to saying Brown profited the least from the scheme, the defense also criticized the loss table that’s used to craft the sentencing guidelines, saying it leads to “unnecessarily harsh” sentences. 

Brown tried twice- unsuccessfully- to postpone her sentencing hearing because of a number of issues, including damage she suffered as a result of Hurricane Irma, which has left her displaced for several weeks. The mitigation report lists that as another reason that a downward adjustment in her sentence from the guidelines is warranted. 

In their sentencing memo, prosecutors criticized comments Brown made against the justice system, federal law enforcement, and other entities ahead of trial, as well as statements alleging possible jury tampering after the verdicts. Brown’s defense says this is an attempt by prosecutors to paint Brown as “an angry woman”. 

“What the United States fails to take into consideration is that Corrine Brown was born and raised in a country that is very different from the one we live in today. African Americans of her generation grew up in a nation where racism was the official law of the land. They know very well the sordid history of this nation when it comes to the treatment of African Americans because they experienced it first hand. They went to the segregated schools, they were forced to live in the segregated neighborhoods, they saw family members and friends mistreated by what was then a racist criminal justice system, and they know exactly why many cities in the south have streets named Division Avenue,” the defense’s sentencing memo says. 

Smith further argues that if Brown said “less than kind” things, it was like “muscle memory” from the past. 

“One would think that knowing this history and the understandable stress of being prosecuted by the federal government the United States would show some grace to Corrine Brown for whatever statements she made prior to trial,” the memo says. 

The defense’s sentencing memo says following the sentencing recommendation would amount to a life sentence for Brown, and would be “devastating” for Brown physically and emotionally. Instead, he’s asking to let Brown continue to work to benefit others through community service, in order to achieve “restorative justice” instead of a pure punishment. The memo and mitigation report list some of Brown’s accomplishments from her time in office, and urges the court to allow her to continue making “a positive contribution to society”. 

Additionally, the mitigation report says an alternative sentence for Brown would allow her to work more immediately on paying restitution. 

The attorney for Ronnie Simmons has also submitted a pre-sentence report, pushing for Simmons to receive an alternative sentence including home detention. 

Simmons is one of two co-defendants who pleaded guilty ahead of trial and testified against Brown. Because of his “substantial” cooperation, prosecutors recommended he face a lighter sentence than guidelines call for- anywhere between 2 years 9 months and 3 years 5 months. 

The pre-sentence report says Simmons’ first “real job” was working for Brown, and he continued that for 24 years, becoming more like family. His defense says Brown taught Simmons about politics, and he learned how she “did business”- including that politics is “a pay to play sport”. 

“He did what she told him exactly as he testified to because no one challenged Corrine Brown when she gave orders,” the report says. 

Simmons’ attorney says his nature is not “sinister”, and he eventually realized it was the “right thing” to do to admit what happened and assist the government. 

“The government will state how Mr. Simmons testimony was crucial to the U.S. government. But it cannot tell you what crucible Elias Simmons had to go through to get to the point of his cooperation. But once he did, he did so without reservation,” the report says. 

In addition to pleading to a conspiracy charge in the “One Door” scheme, Simmons also pleaded guilty to theft of government funds for getting his sister a “ghost” job on the Hill for which she did little work and he took from her salary. To mitigate the punishment for that, the defense claims Simmons’ sister did, in fact, do some work- although not in a full time capacity. 

Simmons’ defense also notes that he is raising his grandson, has a “solid family”, and poses no danger to society. He is currently consulting a bankruptcy attorney because his financial situation has deteriorated, according to the report. His attorney claims Simmons is “less culpable” than Brown, because he did not hold the position of trust as a public employee which she did. He has also fully accepted responsibility, shows substantial remorse, and cooperated fully with the government, according to Simmons’ attorney. 

Finally, Simmons’ attorney offers that part of his sentence could include speaking engagements as community service, in order to share his experience with the community. 

“That actions such as demonstrated by Corrine Brown and himself are not tolerated are not justified and no amount of victimization rhetoric is appropriate. Justice prevailed and right conduct is rewarded and wrong conduct is punished. Ronnie Simmons is willing to be that voice,” the report says, on the nature of those speaking engagements. 

WOKV will be inside the courtroom for the sentencing hearings. While the judge will hear arguments November 15th and 16th, he will not issue his order on the sentences until December 4th. 

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