Jacksonville, FL — The two people who pleaded guilty in connection to the federal fraud case against now-former Northeast Florida Democratic Congresswoman Corrine Brown have both made their cases on why they should avoid prison time.
US District Judge Timothy Corrigan approved more lenient advisory sentencing guidelines because of the "substantial assistance" Carla Wiley and Ronnie Simmons provided, but won't issue the sentences themselves until December 4th- after he's also heard Brown present her case Thursday. Simmons' advisory guidelines put his sentence between 2 years 9 months and 3 years 5 months and Wiley's advisory guidelines fall between 1 year 9 months and 2 years 3 months, but Corrigan emphasized that there are many other factors he will consider as part of the final sentence- which is not bound to fall within these guidelines.
Prosecutors say they wouldn't object to an even lighter sentence for Wiley, but they believe Simmons' range is appropriate for this case. Wiley is asking for probation and community service with the possibility of some home confinement, while Simmons is pushing for home confinement and community service, to include mentoring and speaking out in favor of the justice system. Brown is also seeking to avoid prison time, but prosecutors have not yet disclosed exactly how much time they will seek for her. The advisory guidelines assembled by her Probation Officer- which don't reflect any enhancements recommended by prosecutors or objections from the defense- falls between 7 years 3 months and 9 years, according to her defense.
FULL COVERAGE:The trial of former Congresswoman Corrine Brown
Brown and Simmons are accused of soliciting hundreds of thousands of dollars to the sham charity "One Door For Education"- which Wiley founded and was the President of- but using the money for personal expenses and lavish events, instead of education scholarships or other programs benefiting underprivileged youth, as advertised. Wiley admitted to transferring a total of around $182,000 from One Door's account online in to her own account, while Simmons would use the ATM and One Door's check book to make withdrawals and deposits, giving much of the money to Brown.
Both Wiley and Simmons pleaded guilty ahead of the trial, and the government spent time detailing how their testimony and other aid amounted to "substantial assistance", making it appropriate to adjust down the sentencing guidelines they otherwise faced under statute. Wiley was the first to cooperate, starting almost immediately after she was contacted by federal investigators, not knowing if there would even be a case against Brown and Simmons.
“She took a leap of faith and she did an outstanding job,” says Assistant US Attorney A. Tysen Duva.
Duva says Wiley testified not only at trial, but during the grand jury proceedings that led to the indictments of Brown and Simmons. While her contacts with Brown were limited, Duva says Wiley “strengthened what was already a good case” with the information she provided. While the government acknowledged they believe Wiley should receive the lightest sentence of the three co-defendants, they convinced the judge not to further downgrade the guidelines by classifying Wiley as having a “minor” role, pointing out that she provided control of One Door to Simmons, and then didn’t intervene when she knew they weren’t delivering for the charitable purposes she founded the group for. Corrigan says the “minor role” argument wasn’t frivilous, but it wasn’t even “a close call” to turn down, in his opinion.
Corrigan asked Wiley’s attorneys and Wiley herself why she didn’t step in.
“This was not an isolated event nor was it a minor fraud,” he says.
Wiley says she made “misjudgements” in transferring the money for herself, and then didn’t know how to reign everything in.
“It got out of control fast,” she says.
Simmons was also credited for his assistance to the government. While he didn't plead guilty until a few weeks before the trial, Duva says he provided a "significant" level of detail that helped bring to light some of the transgressions they may not have otherwise been able to track. He says Simmons also needs to be recognized for the "gutwrenching" decision to break with Brown, who he saw not only as a mentor, but practically family.
“The court’s order needs to reflect the nature of that relationship, because it was absolutely significant,” Duva says.
Simmons’ attorney, Anthony Suarez, says his contribution was far more than substantial when it came to Brown’s convictions, and that he may not have turned early, but once he did he was “unwavering”.
“If justice is going to be done here, it was done because Ronnie Simmons decided it was the right thing to do,” Suarez says.
Simmons’ mother asked the court for “grace and mercy”, while Simmons himself apologized to the court, the prosecution, and Brown’s constituents he used to serve.
“They placed their unwavering trust in me and my judgement,” he says. “I am truly remorseful for the actions that I took.”
But prosecutors made it clear they believe Simmons deserves to be punished.
“Ronnie Simmons’ fatal mistake is he should have said to Corrine Brown- I’m not doing that,” Duva says.
Simmons further says that he supports his family, including his elderly mother, son, nephew, and grandson. Wiley is a caregiver for her mother’s elderly companion and provides some support for her son as well.
Among the arguments included in the presentations Wednesday was discussion about figuring out the right sentences that would bring justice. Wiley’s attorneys Justin Fairfax and Gray Thomas described her as “low man on the totem poll”, and warned what could happen if other people in her position see Wiley face a substantial sentence.
“What signal will that send to someone else in Wiley’s position,” Fairfax says.
The government believes Wiley should get the lightest sentence of the three, with Simmons the next most significant, and Brown the harshest. Attorneys on all sides bringing up questions about how those sentences will compare and how that will ultimately reflect on the role each of them played in this scheme. Corrigan says his experience is that, in these multi-defendant cases, it is best to hear the presentations from all parties before issuing a ruling, which was a factor in why he issued the order setting the actual date of the pronouncement of sentences for December 4th. He- and the attorneys- also acknowledged that there is a lot of attention on this case.
“This is a point in history that’s going to be considered,” Duva says.
In comparing the possible sentences each co-defendant will face, Wiley's attorney also raised the idea that while she is set to be the lightest sentenced of those who were charged, there are others they believe to be involved in this scheme- namely Brown's daughter and a longtime aide and associate- who were never charged to begin with.
Brown was convicted in May of 18 federal charges stemming from this scheme. In addition to conspiracy, mail fraud, and wire fraud, she was found guilty of over-reporting charitable contributions and under-reporting income on tax forms and financial disclosures.
Brown and her attorney James Smith will be in front of Corrigan Thursday to make their case for avoiding prison. She has tried twice- unsuccessfully- to delay her appearance, citing damage from Hurricane Irma, ongoing health evaluations, and other reasons. WOKV will be in the courtroom and will update frequently through the day.
The total amounts all parties face in terms of restitution and forfeiture are still being firmed up by the parties involved, in part considering that Simmons also pleaded guilty to profiting off a ghost job he got his sister in the Hill, as well as how to define which donors to One Door are victims. Coorigan set a deadline for next Tuesday, November 21st.