Jacksonville, FL - There have been seven different witnesses, but one consistent answer- those who donated or orchestrated donations to One Door For Education wouldn’t have done so if they knew the money wouldn’t be going to charity, as prosecutors claim.
A flurry of witnesses has been led through questioning by the US Attorney’s Office prosecuting team during the first two days of the federal fraud trial of now-former Congresswoman Corrine Brown. Among the seven over the two days, the theme emerging is that donors and those helping them believed in Brown, and were willing to take her at her word as she vouched for One Door. Prosecutors say instead of the donations going toward scholarship and opportunities for children, though, the money was going to events and the personal expenses of Brown and a few others.
As each witness took the stand to speak of the trust they had in Brown, her defense attorney continued to push his own theme- that Brown herself wouldn’t have had any reason to believe anything wrong was taking place.
John and Bob Picerne are brothers in the Central Florida area. Bob Picerne says he met Brown about 20 years ago and gradually formed a professional and personal relationship. He has a passion for helping children who are going through foster care and helping families who want to adopt, but can’t afford it.
When his company gave to One Door, Picerne believed it would be toward advancing educational opportunities. He didn’t deal with many of the details of the transactions or with personally writing the checks, but in all, the company gave about $90,000 over three years, including $5,000 to cover printing for a commemorative edition of a magazine featuring Brown- a check that they made out to One Door, with the cover ultimately marking the magazine as funded by a re-election campaign.
John Picerne met Brown through his brother, and he says she was able to help his business using her relationship with Naval Station Mayport. She asked him for charitable giving two or three times, and there was a $10,000 check from Picerne to One Door. He says he gave that money because he trusted Brown and believed she was doing good things.
The defense continues to try to drive a wedge between Brown and any knowledge of wrongdoing with One Door funds, and Bob Picerne confirmed that he never spoke with Brown about One Door specifically. John Picerne said he believes he found out about One Door through Brown, but most of his communication about the donations would have been with Brown’s Chief of Staff Ronnie Simmons.
In fact, Brown’s reputation appears to have kept donations flowing, even after potential signs of problems.
Gasper Lazzara- a longtime orthodontist turned business man who has developed orthodontic schools and operates a family foundation focused on healthcare and education for children- says he’s known Brown for about 15 years, since they met at a Jacksonville University groundbreaking. Since then, she has solicited him for donations to summer camps, Edward Waters College, and other causes. In 2012, he says Brown talked to him about a new charity- One Door- and he agreed to invest in a specific program he believed would provide computers to students during the summer session.
When his daughter took over the family foundation, she raised two issues. The first was when Simmons apparently asked them to make the above mentioned check out to One Door, instead of the school district. An email from Lazzara’s daughter to Simmons said they didn’t understand Simmons request to pay the Community Rehabilitation Center, and they just wanted to make sure the money was actually going toward computers for students. Simmons responded that he would get with the Congresswoman, but then never responded. The second issue surfaced when Lazzara’s daughter started doing research and found One Door was not, in fact, a registered 501(c)(3), as they had represented themselves. Despite that, Lazzara says he kept donating to the group, because he “absolutely” trusted Brown.
This was another area where Smith jumped, asking what Lazzara did when he learned One Door was not a registered 501(c)(3). Lazzara couldn’t remember telling Brown directly, believing instead that his daughter communicated the problem with Simmons.
Some on Brown’s staff apparently not only told these prospective donors that One Door was a registered non-profit, but put forward some documentation.
The first big check in One Door’s account came from a PAC backed by a lobbying firm where Brown’s daughter, Shantrel Brown, worked. Tandy Bondi worked with some of the administrative elements of that PAC and did some of research ahead of the $25,000 donation.
Bondi says she couldn’t find that the group was a registered 501(c)(3), and when she asked Simmons, he sent her an attachment about One Door’s IRS Employer Identification Number- which does not grant non-profit status- and a one-page note about the history of the group that explicitly said they were a 501(c)(3).
Another person who orchestrated a donation- Husein Cumber with Florida East Coast industry- says Brown approached him first about a donation to her legal fund to help her redistricting fight, and when he declined, she asked instead for a donation for One Door. Cumber says the way Brown described the group seemed to be a “natural fit” for the business’s charitable giving, so he said to send a W9 and they would consider and process a donation. Cumber says a W9 is required under their corporate guidelines to help ensure the organization is properly registered. Ultimately, that W9 was sent, and Cumber allowed a $10,000 donation.
The legal fund was also apparently the destination for a small number of high value donations that went instead to One Door.
Susie Wiles, a Public Affairs Consultant, says Brown approached her at an August 2015 meeting in Orlando, telling Wiles that she needed help funding a battle she was mounting against Congressional redistricting- which substantially changed Brown’s district from one that stretched from Jacksonville south to Orlando, to one that stretched west instead. Wiles agreed to help Brown put together a small fundraiser, and Brown suggested reaching out to the head of Haskell, Steve Halverson, to host the event at his office. When Wiles did, she says Halverson believed he could bring in the money Brown was seeking without even needing to hold an event.
Wiles says Brown checked in once, and Wiles told her things were moving along. When Halverson came back with checks, Wiles asked Simmons what the “Pay To” line should say. When he didn’t answer right away, Wiles reached out to another Brown aide, Vonn Alexander. Alexander told her to have them made out to One Door, and sent to an address that turned out to be Simmons’ home. Simmons would later respond to make the check to him, and to send them to his home address.
Again there was cross examination, with Smith pointing out that Brown solicited for her legal fund and was not herself involved in any of the communication on where to ultimately send the money.
One of the people solicited by Halverson is retiring CSX CEO Michael Ward. He wrote a $5,000 check he believed to be in some way going toward Brown’s re-election efforts, although wasn’t sure exactly where. He did not believe the money would ultimately be flagged for One Door.
He had personally given $30,000 to One Door though. Ward was animated and passionate as he described for the court some of CSX’s charitable giving and his own, which focuses on improving neighborhoods where the railroad operates.
“Education is the best gift you can give anyone,” he says.
His tone was much more subdued when prosecutors started asking specifically about One Door, though. He first heard about the group from Brown, when she was asking for funding for a golf tournament sponsored by One Door. When he ultimately donated $10,000, though, Ward says he believed his money was going toward iPads for students and not the event. His wife ultimately signed another $10,000 check, but again, Ward says they believed their money was specifically for helping children. Ward would later give another $10,000 to Brown’s effort to send students to China on a cultural exchange. While prosecutors say donor money did, in fact, go toward the trip, the tens of thousands of dollars in excess funds were never returned.
The response was the same across the board- all of these witnesses either donated or orchestrated the donation because of their trust in Brown, and none of them would have signed the checks if they believed the money wouldn’t be going to charity.
WOKV is inside of the federal courthouse and will continue to bring you full details on the testimony. Follow our reporter Stephanie Brown on Twitter for updates during court recesses.