Jacksonville, FL — “It was just not a major issue for me. I know now it should have been.”
Now-former Congresswoman Corrine Brown admits she made mistakes by not managing her office more closely and not paying attention to her personal finances, but she says in regard to the federal charges she’s facing, she never meant to do anything wrong.
“It wasn’t intentional on my part. I made mistakes. I just didn’t pay the kind of attention to details that I should have,” Brown says.
Brown took the stand Thursday to testify in her own defense in the federal fraud trial she's facing. Brown, her former Chief of Staff Ronnie Simmons, and the President of "One Door For Education" Carla Wiley have all been accused of soliciting more than $800,000 in donations to One Door- which prosecutors call a "sham" charity- and using the money for personal expenses instead.
Simmons and Wiley have both pleaded guilty and testified in the trial.
While Simmons says he gave signed blank One Door checks to Brown and withdrew money from One Door to deposit in her account- all at her direction- Brown says that's not the case. In fact, not only did Brown say Simmons acted alone, but she said she had no idea what he was doing at the time. If she had, Brown says she would have called House Administration and fired him, although she admits it would have been difficult to actually call the police.
“There is no way that I would ever have done anything that would cause Ronnie to go to jail. I never would have done anything like that,” she says.
She says she saw Simmons as a son, getting emotional on the stand as she talked about taking a chance on Simmons to run her office, because she saw his potential.
Simmons would sometimes give Brown cash directly, which she believed to be Simmons own cash for reimbursements. Other times, Simmons would put the money in Brown’s account. Her defense asked how she could have not noticed all of the money that was being deposited.
"I wish I could answer that. I wish I paid more close attention to my finances. I was always busy working on things for my constituents," she says.
In addition to serving on two committees- including eventually rising to Ranking Member on Veteran’s Affairs- Brown says she prided herself on being open not just to Jacksonville and Florida constituents, but anyone who sought her ear on key issues. That included working long days and frequent travel back to her district. Simmons would run through her schedule with her every morning, and then the day would be filled with caucus meetings, votes, and more.
Simmons would handle her travel reimbursements, as well as caring for paying himself back for deposits and other expenses he would make in connection to Brown’s Congressional work.
Brown says she had no reason to believe One Door was not a non-profit, and she thought it was doing good things for the community, including paying out scholarship. She says she didn’t actually know there was a problem involving the group until the charges against her were filed and, later, Simmons pled.
Although prior witnesses said Brown would frequently promote One Door, Brown herself said she actually had little knowledge of what the group did.
“They’re just one of the many organizations I worked with,” she says.
Brown says she didn't even realize One Door was the sponsor of some of her events, because she neither assembled the fliers promoting the events nor paid close attention unless it was something she would sign. When she was soliciting donors, it would often be for her campaign account Friends of Corrine Brown, her Florida Delivers Leadership PAC, her legal trust, or One Door. Brown said she would also solicit support for the Congressional Black Caucus Foundation, while working with their interns and scholarship program.
Despite many donors testifying that Brown was skilled at soliciting money, she testified she hated it- especially when it came to her campaign fund, where people were reluctant to contribute because they believed she would win.
She says facing the fact that donors- many of who gave thousands or tens of thousands of dollars, and who she considered friends- may think that she willingly conspired is something that’s devastating, because her reputation is everything.
“The only thing that you have in life is your name,” she says.
But she couldn’t offer any answer when, during early cross examination, prosecutors asked Brown why Simmons would just randomly bring her name in to this case, if not for some wrongdoing.
Brown also received cash deposits from a part-time staffer, Von Alexander, who testified that she would receive signed blank One Door checks and would fill them out and deposit them at Brown's direction. Brown says Alexander was always living "in a crisis" with substantial financial issues, so the deposits tied to Alexander her were actually payments on a loan Brown had given Alexander. She did not speak to how Alexander may have received the One Door checks, or why she would be using that money to pay the loan.
Prosecutors have been trying to show Brown herself was financially challenged, and that without these cash deposits she would have been running in the red. She teared up while telling the court she likes to shop at Macy's and the Dollar Store, but not some of the high end shops that investigators say they see on Brown's bank statements.
“I thought I was living fine, not beyond my means,” Brown said.
$330,000 in One Door donations allegedly went toward hosting events, including a golf tournament at TPC Sawgrass. The group that was supposed to benefit from the tournament- a scholarship funds for minorities in the transportation industry, which Brown said she is passionate about- says they never received any donations. Brown didn't say if she knew specifically about that outcome, but knew the bill on the event was too high- and that's the reason it wasn't an annual event.
“If I had an event and it didn’t make any money, I wasn’t doing it again,” she says.
The intent of all of theses events was always to solicit for charitable causes, according to Brown.
In addition to the fraud and closely related charges, Brown is accused of filing false personal income tax returns and making improper financial disclosures required of a Congressperson. In both cases, prosecutors say she underreported income and overreported charitable contributions.
“I believed in paying my fair share of taxes,” Brown said.
With the charitable giving, Brown's tax preparer has previously testified that she didn't always have documentation to support the donations Brown was claiming. Brown admits that getting her to do her taxes was a hassle for a staff, and looking back now she realizes she should have been more organized and not waiting for the last extension. She maintains that the donations reflected in the return were appropriate, though.
One specific issue for prosecutors has been contributions to Bethel Baptist Church, where Brown worships. She has claimed years of donations, and had provided the supporting receipt for many years. In 2012-2014, though, the receipts were not included in the information given to the IRS. Those receipts were later found in a former staffer of Brown, who said she had been told not to include the receipts. The amount Brown claimed was more than what the documentation showed, sometimes by a few thousand dollars.
Brown says she gave every cent she claimed, but some of the donations were made less formally than others- like putting cash in a collection bin that would passed around at a special event, instead of submitting the donation through the proper channels to ensure it was documented.
Another instance involves furniture donated at Edward Waters College- which Brown claimed in recent years. Testimony from several EWC employees show the donations were actually made in the early 2000s. Brown says she believed that she could claim the contributions at a later time.
Brown also claimed years of donations to One Door For Education. Her CPA noted on a worksheet that Brown verbally confirmed the contribution to her in one of the years, but Brown says she had no recollection of that conversation.
With the financial disclosures that are required of sitting Congresspersons, Brown says she knew she was obligated to do these annually, but Simmons handled it for her. She says they would generally talk about it before she signed, although there is one case where Simmons admitted to signing on the Congresswoman’s behalf.
Cross examination of Brown continues Friday. The jury is currently expected to hear closing arguments Monday, and will then be given the case.
WOKV will continue to be in the courtroom through all of the testimony. Follow our reporter Stephanie Brown on Twitter for frequent updates.