Jacksonville, FL — The three people involved in a fraud scheme that involved a sham education charity sat within feet of each other in front of a federal judge, but didn’t exchange any words or even looks as the federal judge sentenced each to time in prison.
Former Northeast Florida Democratic Congresswoman Corrine Brown will serve five years, after being convicted on 18 charges connected to the fraud, which involved soliciting hundreds of thousands of dollars to a sham charity organization and using the money for personal expenses and lavish events instead. Her two co-defendants both pleaded guilty and testified against Brown. Her former Chief of Staff Ronnie Simmons has been sentenced to four years, and the President of “One Door For Education”- the organization they funneled money through- Carla Wiley, will serve one year and nine months. All three had been hoping to avoid any time in prison outright.
The judge is allowing the co-defendants to voluntarily surrender for their prison term at a date to be determined by the Bureau of Prisons, but no earlier than January 8th. Until then, the travel of Simmons and Wiley is restricted to Virginia, Maryland, and Washington DC, and Brown is restricted to the Middle District of Florida, unless they get approval from pre-trial officers. They will also surrender their passports and will report to pre-trial services. The government did not object to any of these terms.
All three additionall will face supervised release after their prison terms, as well as forfeiture and restitution totaling hundreds of thousands of dollars- which the Judge ordered be paid in $250 per month installments upon release from prison.
FULL COVERAGE: The federal fraud case of former Congresswoman Corrine Brown
WOKV has been following this case since early last year, when Wiley pleaded guilty to conspiracy to commit wire fraud and agreed to cooperated with the government as they continued to build their case. In July, Brown and Simmons were indicted- Brown on 22 charges and Simmons on 19. Earlier this year, Simmons pleaded guilty to conspiracy to commit mail and wire fraud and theft of government funds, and also agreed to cooperate with the prosecution. Brown then faced trial in May, and was convicted on 18 charges, including conspiracy to commit mail and wire fraud, aiding and abetting mail fraud, aiding and abetting wire fraud, scheme to conceal material facts, corrupt endeavor to obstruct and impede the due administration of internal revenue law, and filing false tax returns.
Wiley founded One Door with good intentions, but it was essentially dormant until Simmons- her boyfriend at the time- took control. Judge Timothy Corrigan says one of the victims in this case is One Door itself, because financial records show more than $800,000 moved through the organization, but it didn’t go to the charitable purpose donors expected.
“Just think of the good that could have been done with that money,” says Corrigan, adding that the defendants “systematically looted” the funds.
Wiley’s theft came through online transfers from One Door’s bank account, which were conducted separately from the scheme involving Brown and Simmons. Corrigan says there were no indications Wiley would have stopped had she not been caught, and she was also aware of the theft by Brown and Simmons and did nothing to stop it.
“A sentence of probation would not be sufficient to account for such audacious and long-term misconduct,” he says.
Simmons would withdraw money from One Door's account and deposit it in to Brown's account or give her cash, according to the case that was presented. He would also sometimes give Brown blank, signed One Door checks, and took One Door money for his own use as well. Simmons and others testified that the transactions involving One Door's account were performed at Brown's direction, and prosecutors say Brown abused the public's trust and duped donors. Corrigan, with his sentencing, agreed.
“One Door For Education was operated as a criminal enterprise by Carla Wiley, Ronnie Simmons, and Corrine Brown,” Corrigan says.
Simmons additionally admitted to getting his sister a salary from the House of Representatives, even though she did little to no actual work. Simmons further took some of the money that his sister was receiving through the ghost job. All these factors considered, the judge actually recommended Simmons for a sentence above what his advisory guidelines called for.
Brown was separately found guilty of lying on her financial disclosure forms and tax returns by underreporting income she received from One Door and overreporting her donations to charity, including claiming donations to One Door.
“Having routinely converted One Door money for her own personal use, Ms. Brown turned around and falsely state on her tax returns that she had actually donated money to One Door for which she claimed a substantial charitable deduction. Brazen barely describes it,” Corrigan says.
Brown continues to maintain her innocence, saying she was duped by Simmons and mismanaged her office and personal finances but never intended to engage in criminal acts. During her sentencing hearing a few weeks ago, she asked for "mercy and compassion" from the Judge. Her defense asked the Judge to consider her history of public service, age, lack of criminal history, and other factors in his sentencing.
But Corrigan found Brown and Simmons abused their positions and traded on Brown’s position and the trust people had in her, for their own financial benefit.
“The public had a right to expect that Ms. Brown, as an elected member of Congress, and Mr. Simmons, her longtime Chief of Staff, would not abuse their positions of public trust and responsibility,” Corrigan says.
Simmons and Wiley both accepted responsibility in front of the Judge and apologized for their actions. The government recommended leniency as a result of their substantial cooperation and other factors. While the judge noted that as significant, he did not think justice would be achieved with any of the defendants avoiding prison outright. He did also find it notable that Brown continued to not accept responsibility.
“While Ms. Brown is of course free to maintain her innocence, because she stands before the Court at sentencing unrepentant, she cannot be accorded the same sentencing considerations as someone who accepts responsibility for her wrongful action, expresses remorse, and promises to make amends,” he says.
Brown’s attorney says they plan to not only appeal, but ask that she remain out on bond pending that appeal.
Simmons and Wiley both have the right to appeal their sentences, but neither have indicated if they will do that.
Despite these ongoing legal problems, Brown has continued to draw in supporters. Corrigan says he has received “hundreds” of letters in support of Brown, and that he read every one in his consideration of her sentence.
When the courtroom doors opened Monday for the sentencing pronouncement, there were dozens of people waiting to get in, and the courtroom itself filled up within minutes. An overflow courtroom was also open, as it has been through the trial and many of the proceedings.
The US Attorney’s Office declined to comment about today’s sentencing pronouncement. The FBI Jacksonville has issued a statement Special Agent in Charge Charles P. Spencer.
"It is incredibly disappointing that an elected official, who took an oath year after year to serve others, would exploit the needs of children and abuse the charitable hearts of constituents to advance her own personal and political agendas, and deliver them with virtually nothing. I am proud of the exceptional work of the special agents, analysts and support personnel who spent countless hours following the money trail in this case. Their work is some of the most complex, tedious, and significant work we do for the American public. It is an exceptionally difficult task, but rooting out public corruption is a priority for which the FBI will continue to dedicate the resources necessary to investigate, because the impact on everyday people is real. We thank our law enforcement partners at the IRS-CI and U.S. Attorney’s Office for their efforts to hold Brown and her associates accountable for their inexcusable actions.”
This is a developing story that will be updated through the day. Get frequent updates on 104.5FM/AM 690 and on Twitter.