ON AIR NOW

LISTEN NOW

Weather

cloudy-day
62°
Light Rain
H 84° L 61°
  • cloudy-day
    62°
    Current Conditions
    Light Rain. H 84° L 61°
  • rain-day
    64°
    Afternoon
    Light Rain. H 84° L 61°
  • rain-day
    63°
    Evening
    Rain. H 66° L 62°
LISTEN
PAUSE
ERROR

The latest top stories

00:00 | 00:00

LISTEN
PAUSE
ERROR

The latest traffic report

00:00 | 00:00

LISTEN
PAUSE
ERROR

The latest forecast

00:00 | 00:00

Local
“Tell the truth and get it over with”: Former Rep. Corrine Brown’s Chief of Staff tells his side
Close

“Tell the truth and get it over with”: Former Rep. Corrine Brown’s Chief of Staff tells his side

“Tell the truth and get it over with”: Former Rep. Corrine Brown’s Chief of Staff tells his side
Photo Credit: Action News Jax
Rep. Corrine Brown's former Chief of Staff Ronnie Simmons at the federal courthouse in Jacksonville to testify at Brown's trial.

“Tell the truth and get it over with”: Former Rep. Corrine Brown’s Chief of Staff tells his side

What he did was at the direction of now-former Congresswoman Corrine Brown.

“I usually don’t tell her no,” says Brown’s former Chief of Staff Ronnie Simmons.

“Is that the culture in the office?” asked Assistant US Attorney A. Tysen Duva.

“Yes,” Simmons says.

In the ongoing federal fraud trial, Brown’s attorney has been building a case about betrayal, saying she put her trust in Simmons and increasingly relied on him to handle her business and financial needs.

Now, Simmons is telling his side in testimony Wednesday.

FULL COVERAGE: Federal fraud trial of now-former Congresswoman Corrine Brown

Simmons is one of two people who have taken plea deals in connection with this case, with the other being One Door For Education President Carla Wiley, who testified Monday. Prosecutors claim the three were involved in soliciting more than $800,000 in charitable donations to One Door, and using the money for personal expenses instead.

An early focus of Simmons’ testimony was ATM withdrawals he made from the One Door bank account, ultimately depositing most of the cash in Brown’s account. The first one came in September 2012, and there were many that followed. The defense has previously argued that Simmons could have done these transactions without Brown’s knowledge, and that Brown didn’t know where the money she was getting was coming from. Simmons says that’s not the case.

“All the others [transactions] on this chart- did you just do that on you own, or did the Congresswoman ask you to do it,” asked Duva.

Simmons responded that Brown directed him.

“If you were going to take the money for yourself, what would be the better way to do that,” asked Duva.

“Deposit it in my account and keep it,” Simmons said.

There were additionally dozens of ATM withdrawals that didn’t have any apparent matching deposit in Brown’s account. Simmons says, in about two-thirds of those transactions, he gave Brown all of the cash directly. In the other third, he says he got some of the money, but always gave some to Brown as well.

Simmons also told the court he was unaware of money Brown allegedly received from other organizations before One Door, including the Community Rehabilitation Center non-profit. Prior testimony has shown checks written off that account or a few closely affiliated were ultimately deposited as cash with Brown as far back as 2010. Prosecutors are working to show a pattern of Brown taking money from these organizations, independent of any involvement by Simmons.

On cross-examination, though, Brown’s attorney James Smith III pointed out that one of the checks in question mentioned Simmons’ mother in the memo line. Simmons told the court he and his family had previously received money from the CRC’s Executive Director Reginald Gaffney, who he had known for about three decades. Simmons testified he didn’t believe his mother had ultimately received money in connection to that specific check.

One Door came forward while Simmons and Wiley were boating with a few other people and talking about an annual reception for Brown in conjunction with the Congressional Black Caucus Annual Legislative Conference. Simmons said he needed a non-profit to host the event because it’s easier to collect money through a 501(c)(3). Simmons says One Door was a very interesting option.

“Primarily, because I would be able to control it,” he testified.

According to the testimony of Simmons and Wiley, they would both wind up stealing money from the organization- independent of each other. Wiley had pleaded guilty to transferring about $140,000 online, while Simmons took control of the debit card and checks. Wiley says she only found out Simmons was using One Door money after a romantic trip they took together to South Florida where she assuming he was treating her out of her pocket, but it turned out he was using the One Door account. Simmons says he wasn’t aware of Wiley taking money until federal investigators came to him.

The management of that account- and others in Simmons control- was a big question for the defense.

The defense has been working to put distance between Brown and any knowledge of wrongdoing. In the opening statement, the defense said Brown trusted Simmons to handle her money, and that it wasn’t uncommon for her to see deposits in to her account, because she would pay for her own travel or expenses relating to her work, and needed to be reimbursed. Simmons described Brown as heavily engaged with her constituents, including flying back to the District almost every week. 

“In order to be able to accomplish this task, she relied upon you?” asked Smith.

“Yes,” Simmons responded.

He says there is a proper way to do those reimbursements, and this is not it.

The defense is not questioning that Brown solicited money for One Door, but they’re trying to show Brown did not know those donations would be going to things other than charity.

Smith had Simmons confirm that, not only would he write checks off the One Door account- by signing Wiley’s name- but he would also sign checks from the Friends of Corrine Brown campaign account- where he would sign the Treasurer’s name- and Florida Leadership PAC which was affiliated with Brown. Simmons says he generally would sign the check and give it to Brown, without the rest filled out. He says he wasn’t aware of what happened to the checks after that, and he never asked.

Prosecutors asked why Simmons didn’t just write the checks to Brown directly.

“That would have been too obvious,” he said.

One of the most heated lines from prosecutors came when looking at the $330,000 in One Door funds that allegedly went to hosting various events. During cross-examination, defense attorney James Smith III had Simmons talk about the intent of those events being to raise money for scholarships and charity. Simmons says they brought donors together and hoped there would be giving.

Duva asked when Simmons found out that they weren’t actually raising scholarship money, and he said they would see that after pretty much every event. Simmons said the events were always in the hole.

“I can’t help that,” Simmons said.

Duva pressed how long it would have taken them to make changes to benefit charity, and Simmons wasn’t sure.

In fact, Simmons confirmed they were making withdrawals from One Door during one of the occasions where they were fundraising for a legitimate trip- sending some students to China. There was also an instance where they were soliciting money to One Door after an event in an effort to cover some more of the expenses. That involved telling the donor the check would go to a separate Foundation, but to write the check to One Door. The donor ultimately decided to cut out the middle man.

This comes after Simmons testified Brown never asked about the progress of any of the charitable work One Door was reported to be doing, and further, that there were not in fact raising money for scholarships, computers, or other charitable projects. There were also no photo ops or media opportunities that you may typically expect from a politician that’s promoting a charitable organization.

Simmons says he came to know One Door was not a registered non-profit, but he didn’t “care”, because it was an entity that he could control. When he found out, he says he did tell Brown, but he further testified that he thought the problem had been resolved.

Simmons and Brown were jointly indicted in July 2016, with Simmons facing 19 charges overall. He ultimately pleaded guilty to two counts- conspiracy to commit mail and wire fraud and theft of government funds. The conspiracy charge deals with the misuse of One Door funds, while the theft charges deals with a House of Representatives job Simmons got for his sister, where she did little to no actual work. In the plea agreement, Simmons admits to taking some of the $735,000 his sister received from that job over the years, and using it for his own expenses.

Simmons could be sentenced to twenty years in prison on the conspiracy charge and ten years in prison on the theft charge. He is hoping for leniency as a result of his testimony and cooperation with the government- even going so far as to say he hopes to avoid prison altogether- but stated during his testimony that nothing has been promised by the government at this point.

Smith countered that Simmons has been promised the other charges would be dropped. He then further focused in on the fact that Simmons has to provide “substantial assistance” to the government in their case.

“So telling the truth just isn’t enough?” Smith asked.

“Correct,” Simmons responded.

Simmons at one point told Brown that he was feeling pressured to plead, according to Smith. Simmons said prosecutors were threatening to indict his sister, and he also feared for the future of Brown’s daughter, Shantrel. Duva says there’s nothing in the plea agreement that binds them to whether or not another party is charged in this case.

“Did you plead guilty because you are guilty?” Duva asked.

“Yes,” Simmons responded.

Simmons says after reading through all of the discovery and dealing with the investigation and subsequent case for more than a year, he realized the right thing to do was plead.

“Tell the truth and get it over with,” he says.

Brown is scheduled to testify late Thursday, with the prosecution wrapping up it’s case mid-morning Thursday.

Simmons was measured and composed through most of his testimony. He kept his attention focused on the attorneys and lawyers, and didn’t appear to look over at Brown for any period of time. Brown listened closely to the testimony, occasionally conferring with her attorney or taking notes. Simmons described their relationship as “extremely close”, after having worked together for more than two decades.

WOKV is in the courtroom following all of the developing testimony. Get frequent updates by following our reporter Stephanie Brown on Twitter


Now-former Congresswoman Corrine Brown's Chief of Staff tells his side of the story, and the Congresswoman herself is expected on the stand tomorrow.

Posted by News 104.5 WOKV on Wednesday, May 3, 2017

Read More

The Latest News Headlines

  • A rescue is underway at SeaWorld San Diego after a skyride malfunctioned Monday night, initially stranding nine adults and seven children – including an infant. >> See a photo from the scene here >> Read more trending news  As of 10:30 p.m. PST, crews had rescued 14 people from the Bayside Skyride, which stalled when heavy winds 'tripped a circuit breaker' more than three hours earlier, KSWB reported. Two people were still trapped on the ride's gondolas, the San Diego Fire Department said. >> See the tweet here KSWB said some of the gondolas were over Mission Bay when the ride stopped working. Those trapped were 'lowered by harnesses & rescued by [San Diego Lifeguards] boats,' the Fire Department tweeted. Read more here.
  • Four days after the announcement of a series of executive actions to fund his signature border wall, President Donald Trump’s administration still needs to fill in the details on his plans to shift over $6.6 billion from the Pentagon and Treasury Department into funding border security, as members of Congress continue to wonder if the move will dig into their local military base construction projects. On Capitol Hill, lawmakers and their staffs were awaiting guidance on where the Pentagon would look for money in the $3.6 billion sought by the President in his emergency declaration from military construction projects, which was already the subject of new lawsuits. “Congress has not enacted any emergency legislation even remotely related to border wall construction, and thus the President’s reallocation of funds is unlawful,” read a suit filed against the President and Pentagon by several environmental groups. In a letter to the Acting Secretary of Defense, Sen. Tim Kaine (D-VA) asked for a breakdown of which projects would be put on hold – as under the ‘national emergency’ law used by the President, the Pentagon would make those decisions – not the Congress. Congress approved $10.3 billion for military construction in Fiscal Year 2019 – the $3.6 billion sought by the President would be more than one-third of that amount – which has drawn expressions of concern from lawmakers. As Kaine noted in his letter, the move to shift money from military construction comes at a time when the Pentagon already was having to deal with hurricane damage at two major domestic bases – Camp Lejeune for the Marines in North Carolina, and Tyndall Air Force Base in Florida. Tyndall was seriously damaged by Hurricane Michael in 2018 – and despite support for rebuilding the base, Congress has not yet acted on extra money for the Pentagon – or on broader hurricane relief for those hit in Florida and Georgia. During the partial government shutdown, Democrats in the House approved a bill which had $12.1 billion in disaster aid, both for hurricanes and wildfires – but that bill does not seem to be on the agenda in the U.S. Senate at this point. @DrNealDunnFL2 Dr Dunn, we are hearing here in the Panhandle that Trump is going after Tyndall rebuilding money for his wall. Please don’t let this happen! No Tyndall would be catastrophic to our area. Please help! — Billy Shears (@BillyShears9) February 14, 2019 The Commandant of the Marine Corps said over the weekend that he needs $3.5 billion just for repairs at Camp LeJeune from damage caused by Hurricane Florence in September of 2018 – which is equal to the figure of how much in military construction the President wants to shift into a border wall. Earlier this month, Air Force officials said they planned to spend $3 billion to rebuild Tyndall, which was flattened by Hurricane Michael in October of last year. House Democrats say they plan to hold a hearing as soon as next week to get a better idea on what military construction projects the Pentagon wants to scrap – in order to move money to the wall. Also still unclear is the legal underpinnings for two other moves announced last week by the White House, where the President would move money from a Treasury Department drug forfeiture fund, as well as money from a Pentagon anti-drug account – into a border wall.
  • JEA employees should expect to see some soggy carpets and heavy-duty drying equipment when they get to work Tuesday. An internal communication sent to employees says nine floors in the 19-story tower have experienced areas of flooding, in connection to several different issues. JEA says an under-counter water heater on the 8th floor failed on Sunday, flooding that break room and causing problems all the way down to the second floor. The water has soaked ceiling tiles, cabinets, and boxes in copy rooms and surrounding spaces. On Monday, JEA says a water supply line to the ice machine on the 14th floor failed, flooding that break room and surrounding areas. JEA says that leak caused damage to the 12th floor as well, although it appears the 13th floor was spared. A third issue happened at the Customer Center lobby, where there was a water leak from the HVAC system that damaged a ceiling tile. It was removed and will be replace when they are done handling the Tower, according to JEA. JEA Managing Director and CEO Aaron Zahn tweeted that JEA service will continue. JEA says no employees are displaced by this flooding, because it is largely around break rooms. Employees are cautioned to expect soggy carpets, fans drying some areas, and equipment to extract water in others. They will try to minimize the impact of the equipment, but say there will be extra noise. This comes as JEA considers bids for a new headquarters building. When this process started, the driving factors for seeking a new location were that the current building was too large and was in need of substantial repairs. The Board of Directors has three bids under consideration, Lot J by TIAA Bank Field, Kings Avenue Station on the Southbank, and West Adams Street by the County Courthouse. The Board will make a selection in April, but constructing and handing over the facility is expected to take more than two years to do. WOKV has asked JEA for more information about the state of the Tower and extent of repairs needed. We will update you as that information comes in.
  • The University of North Florida is making some changes after communication problems last week during a threat of a potential shooter on campus. Investigators determined the threat was bogus and had been called in by a woman with mental health issues, but UNF spokesperson Sharon Ashton says they've decided to make several policy changes in case there's an actual threat in the future.  'We will be retraining everyone in the UPD, University Police Department, to make sure they understand the priority of how to best communicate a message,' Ashton says.  She says the Jacksonville Sheriff's Office contacted the UPD on Feb. 11 at 5:50 p.m. to tell them someone had called saying they saw a person with a gun at the arena parking garage. About 20 minutes later, the 911 operator in the campus communications center was told to send out an alert telling the campus to shelter in place.  'Unfortunately the UNF 911 operator chose to send out that message via email instead of text message or phone call, which are the most immediate ways to get the word out,' Ashton says.  She says the operator also had the option to use the public address system, both inside buildings and externally in parking lots, but she decided against that as well.  Ashton says those decisions caused a domino effect that made the situation worse. She says the vendor the school uses to send out emails tried to send out 40,000 alerts, but about 1,500 of those messages were never delivered.  After all the problems, it was decided a debriefing should be held with the school's president, campus police and the crisis management team. Ashton says now they are putting safeguards in place.  Those safeguards include posting detailed instructions in the communications center to ensure everyone knows the best way to get a message out quickly in case of emergency. They are also looking at increasing the number of employees in the center, because Ashton says the 911 calls start coming in rapidly in a situation like the one last week.  Ashton says when the crisis management team holds their monthly meeting in March, they will go through last week's scare minute by minute to talk about what occurred and what should have occurred.  She also says they will work with the email vendor to make sure there's a way to send all 40,000 emails without getting some of them hung up.  'In hindsight there are some things with communication that could have been done better, and we will work on that because safety is the number one priority,' Ashton says.
  • With the aim of streamlining the overall system and aiding investigations by the Jacksonville Sheriff’s Office, the City Council is now considering a plan to spend close to $3.5 million upgrading and replacing security cameras and related systems at City buildings. WOKV previously reported that $3 million was set aside for this as part of the annual budget process. Several departments had sought upgraded equipment, and the Administration decided to form a working group to look at the need from a more broad perspective, rather than continuing to have each department handle their own procurement. Details obtained by WOKV now show that working group has recommended 1,666 new cameras from three main vendors- Lenel, Geutebruck, and Optiview. That includes new cameras mainly at public libraries, the County Courthouse, and Tax Collector branches, as well as a few other locations and some recording and storage upgrades. The overall ask totals $3,456,857, though. The $456,857 that’s over the $3 million already set aside will come from Public Parking’s budget and will focus specifically on new cameras for the Ed Ball garage and Water Street garage, as well as a new video recording server for all Public Parking locations. IN DEPTH: Jacksonville’s $1.2 billion budget Jacksonville Mayor Lenny Curry’s Chief of Staff Brian Hughes, who led up the working group on this matter, says this recommendation reduces the number of vendors being used and involves vendors that IT employees are already familiar with. He says looking at this from a more broad perspective also let them realize some cost savings, as part of negotiating a larger deal. But the biggest impact in these upgrades could instead be on the benefit it may provide to JSO. “Making sure that, if we make these investments in technology for video surveillance, that they were systems that would integrate with JSO’s programming,” Hughes says. Currently, if JSO sees City surveillance cameras that may have captured something important to an investigation, they have to work through a process of requesting that footage and then physically obtaining it, according to Hughes. He says that’s because the current camera system uses recording and storage devices that are not network- or cloud-based. In recent months, the Jacksonville Sheriff’s Office has been setting up a “Real-Time Crime Center”, which is built around software called CommandCentral Aware, which grabs many different information feeds and streamlines them to then relay to first responders and investigators. By replacing the current cameras and recording systems with ones that are compatible with wireless networking, the new infrastructure can feed in to the CommandCentral Aware system directly, meaning video that used to take hours or more to obtain can now be accessed very quickly. IN DEPTH: What is a “Real Time Crime Center” “If, let’s say, something happened on a street, any street. If they [JSO] know a government building is there and it’s a cloud-based system that they’ve logged in to their capabilities, they can- in a much faster time- access the feed and say ‘Oh, that camera faces out on to the street that we want to see if a car drove by’, or see who was walking on the street, or driving by at the moment when an incident happened,” Hughes says. The RTCC system is able to search those video feeds and synch up various streams, in an effort to create a comprehensive look at a scene and find potential evidence and leads.  These camera replacements represent the needs that were expressed to the Administration in the lead up to the last budget cycle, but not all of the cameras and infrastructure in the City. WOKV asked if the Administration’s intent is to continue replacing this tech at their end of life, or if they will look at proactively upgrading existing tech in order to further support the RTCC. “Those decisions are obviously budget impact decisions, and we try to weigh all the priorities that are coming forth in the budget process, as we prepare for Council’s consideration. But, obviously, public safety is a number one priority for the Mayor, so wherever we can find the possibility of contributing to public safety, we will. But we have to balance that, as always, with all of the other budget priorities,” Hughes says. He says this process will help guide them in the event other City departments request security camera and system upgrades in the next budget. They are looking at several different vendors because Hughes says there are unique needs that each one can address in various departments, but the core focus is that all of the upgrades will be capable of wireless- and cloud based-networking. City Council must still approve this plan in the coming weeks, although the money that’s being used has already been earmarked for these purposes. If approved, Hughes says there will be some steps that take place in procurement, but they will look to deploy the new cameras and systems as soon as possible. The RTCC is also fed by programs like ShotSpotter, which detects the sound of gunshots and alerts police, even if there is no 911 cal that’s placed. It further integrates the National Integrated Ballistic Information Network, which compares ballistic evidence against other cases. JSO recently doubled the equipment they have to process evidence through NIBIN. While the intelligence-based technology and systems continue to expand in Jacksonville, City leaders have also tried other measures to reach in to neighborhoods to address violence, through a program awarding grants to small community organizations. JSO has also been rolling out hundreds of body cameras. Despite that, we saw a spike of violence in Jacksonville this past weekend, with at least seven shootings leaving four people dead and five others hurt. WOKV will continue to press City leadership for insight on what kind of returns these investments are getting.

The Latest News Videos