After eight days of testimony- with forty witnesses for the prosecution and four for the defense- closing arguments Monday in the federal fraud trial of now-former Congresswoman Corrine Brown have wrapped up, and the jury was formally tasked with the case at 1:13 PM. The four alternates who have sat through the testimony are not in the deliberation room, but they are being kept in the courthouse for now, per the Judge’s request.
Around 5 PM, the judge’s Courtroom Deputy checked with the jury, and they were ready to call it a day. They were dismissed for the evening at 5:01 PM with strict instructions not to discuss the case any further. Deliberations will resume at 9 AM Tuesday.
“When Corrine Brown wanted something, she got it,” says Justice Department Public Integrity Section Deputy Chief Eric Olshan.
The defense has continued to say that when Brown raised money for One Door For Education, she believed the group was a non-profit doing charitable work, though- and that Brown herself was a victim.
“Not guilty on all counts, because she never intended to cheat or defraud anyone. She was defrauded,” says Defense Attorney James Smith III.
Olshan delivered the closing argument for the government Monday, as one of three prosecutors who have been involved in questioning the witnesses through the trial. A focus he kept bringing the jury back to- and one he put prominently on a power point screen for the jury to consider- is why would Brown’s Chief of Staff Ronnie Simmons put One Door money in the defendant’s bank account without her knowledge?
“It makes no sense, ladies and gentlemen, that Mr. Simmons would just hand over tens of thousands of dollars in his own money to his boss,” Olshan said.
Evidence presented through the trial showed Simmons would withdraw money from One Door- a bogus charity- and then deposit the cash in to Brown’s account or give Brown cash directly. Brown claimed in her testimony that she wouldn’t always notice the deposits, because she didn’t pay close attention to her finances. As for the cash Simmons gave her, she told the court she believed it was rightfully and legally Simmons’ money, but hadn’t given any explanation for why he would give her that money until today.
Smith says prosecutors never effectively showed whether Simmons had access to Brown’s personal checks, and whether he could have therefore been responsible for some of the expenses coming out of Brown’s account. To explain the deposits and cash, Smith laid out the possibility that Simmons was stealing directly from Brown. He says Simmons would then deposit One Door funds in Brown’s account in order to avoid her account from getting overdrawn and give Brown cash to avoid her checking her ATM directly- all in an effort to cover up his theft.
“He was stealing from her, just like he was stealing from One Door,” Smith says.
In his rebuttal, Olshan questioned why Simmons would go through that complicated process of stealing from One Door to cover up a theft from Brown, instead of just stealing from One Door. He also reinforced that for some of the most highly scrutinized expenses- including a trip Brown and her daughter Shantrel took to LA, during which there were some high price shopping bills allegedly funded through One Door money- Simmons wasn’t even in the same state.
For Smith, the case is about character, and whether Simmons himself can be trusted.
“If Ronnie Simmons is someone you can’t trust, then you can’t trust the government’s case,” he says.
He pointed out that one of the counts Simmons pleaded guilty to involves getting his sister a ghost job with the House of Representatives, and then tapping in to her salary over several years. Smith said Simmons also took advantage of his girlfriend at the time, Carla Wiley, by using her organization to commit this fraud. Smith argued that if Simmons could defraud his sister and his girlfriend, why not his boss.
“He’s able to hide it using the most valuable currency,” Smith said. “Trust.”
Smith added that Simmons admitted to signing checks and documents on behalf of Brown and others, further showing that he shouldn’t, in fact, be trusted by the jury. Olshan says even many of those signatures could have been at Brown’s direction. He characterized Simmons instead as obedient to Brown- who had brought him up with her through her political climb.
“What can be more frightening than the prospect of going to prison,” Smith questioned.
In addition to comparing the overall character of Brown against Simmons, Smith highlighted specific times where the jury should question the testimony they heard.
Prosecutors have been building a case to show Brown a habit of receiving outside money through cash donations, by highlighting some money she got from the Community Rehabilitation Center or some closely affiliated businesses, which were ultimately funded as checks written to cash, then deposited in her account. This happened a couple of year before One Door became an option. Simmons testified that he had no knowledge of these transactions and had not been a part of them.
During his closing, Smith brought up one of these checks, which included the name of Simmons’ mother on the memo line. Simmons continued to say during cross that he was unaware of the transaction, but Smith says that’s one of the reasons the jury should not believe the testimony.
Olshan says Smith was doing everything he could to put the blame on other people- like Brown’s staffer and CPA- and not on Brown herself, but there were plenty of notes and testimony from the tax preparer which contradicted those claims. In fact, in one year where Brown claimed a $12,500 to One Door For Education, the note about the contribution was written by Simmons, but the tax preparer had her own notation which showed she verbally confirmed that with Brown herself.
“This was no honest mistake, this was a habit,” Olshan said.
“Make no mistake, this case is about the defendant delivering to herself, over and over again,” Olshan says.
And Olshan says she did so at the expense of the children who could have truly benefitted from legitimate fundraising and charitable work.
But Smith says what doesn’t make sense is how Brown could have allegedly instructed all of these transactions, but not benefitted finically as much as the others who have been named in the case. If you don’t include the One Door For Education contributions to events hosted by Brown or held in her honor, then both Simmons and Wiley got more in simple money.
“Have you ever heard of a scheme where the mastermind got the smallest amount of the spoils?” Smith questioned.
He says the FBI, IRS, and investigators became intent on who they wanted to take down in this case- Brown- and put on “blinders” to any evidence that could show otherwise. He says that evidence would have shown Brown was an aging Congresswoman who became too dependent on Simmons, and ultimately became just another one of his victims.
“Not only is this man stealing from her, he’s sullying her reputation,” Smith says.
There is no timeline on how long jury deliberations are expected to take.
The jury has the case.
We're bringing you a full recap of closing arguments and the start of deliberations in the federal fraud trial of now-former Congresswoman Corrine Brown.