Posted: May 04, 2017
By Stephanie Brown
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.
The defense is calling just four witnesses to present their side in the federal fraud trial of now-former Congresswoman Corrine Brown- including Brown herself.
The other three witnesses who have testified on Brown’s behalf spanned personal, professional, and civic bonds, but were united in their trust of Brown and belief that the Congresswoman was passionate about serving her constituents and causes.
Rontel Batie started as an intern in Brown’s office in 2010, being placed there through the Congressional Black Caucus Foundation. He later worked as a full-time staffer as well, so he saw Brown on and off over the span of several years.
Throughout that time, he says Brown had the reputation for getting there before most people, and staying well after others had left. He described her as an “expert” on the causes she was involved in, especially veteran’s issues. Brown’s Defense Attorney James Smith III asked Batie if he noticed Brown’s age starting to catch up to her, and if that made her rely more and more on her staff. While he says he saw the impact on Brown physically- for example she wouldn’t walk nearly as much as years prior- he says she remained the “expert” on legislative issues. He did add that the staff worked to take care of her personal needs, so that she could focus on the core responsibilities of a lawmaker.
Batie also believes he has attended an event Brown hosted in conjunction with the CBCF’s Annual Legislative Conference. These receptions during this event have been criticized by prosecutors, who argue they were parties for Brown funded through donations to a “sham” charity. Batie said there was always a lot of education and networking taking place, although on further questioning, it seemed he had actually attended an official veteran’s reception hosted by Brown on Capitol Hill, rather than the event that’s not formally affiliated with the conference.
UNF President John Delaney, who’s a former Jacksonville Mayor, knew Brown dating back to the 1980s, but grew closer to her in the early 1990s, when he started working at City Hall.
“She’s bluntly honest,” he says.
He spoke about Brown working tirelessly to help with some big things for the City, including repairs to the Fuller Warren Bridge and the construction of the federal courthouse.
Another woman, Brenda Simmons Hutchinson, worked with Brown through the community service oriented group The Links. She says Brown and another women were behind a project to get laptops for young female students they were counseling, and it was rewarding to see those computers be delivered.
“I’m still smiling because I can still see the smile on their faces,” she says.
Simmons Hutchinson says her grandson is also one of the students who was chosen to go on an exchange trip to China which Brown organized, describing that as an “opportunity of a lifetime”.
Prosecutors have previously questioned the funding for both of those programs, as well as the selection process on who was chosen to go on the China trip. Simmons Hutchinson did not speak to the funding and was unaware of how students were chosen for the exchange program.
On cross examination, a question prosecutors posed to all of the parties was whether any of them were aware of Brown’s financial situation. None were.
Prosecutors called a total of 40 witnesses over seven days to make their case. The defense is not obligated to make any case presentation, so the lower number of witnesses is not any indication of the strength of their arguments. The burden to prove the charges falls on the government.
Brown, her Chief of Staff Ronnie Simmons, and the head of One Door For Education Carla Wiley are accused of soliciting more than $800,000 in donations to One Door, promoting the organization as a charity when it was not. The trio allegedly used the money for their own personal expenses, although Wiley says she operated separate from Simmons and Brown. Both Simmons and Wiley have pleaded guilty and previously testified for the prosecution.
Brown has maintained through this process that she was unaware of what Simmons and Wiley were doing, and that she trusted Simmons to handle her affairs and he betrayed that trust.
WOKV is inside of the federal courthouse following the latest testimony, as Brown herself takes the stand.
Now-former Congresswoman Corrine Brown claimed tens of thousands of dollars in donations of cash, checks, and items to various local non-profits in recent years- but the records from those groups are showing things don’t add up.
In some cases, there is a lack of any record. In other cases where Brown has a letter acknowledging her contribution, the groups say their books are telling a different story.
Earlier this week, Brown’s tax preparer walked the court through the individual returns Brown has filed since 2008. WOKV gave you a comprehensive look at not just the top lines, but the charitable contributions Brown deducted- or sought to deduct- each year, as prosecutors worked to back up the tax-related charges Brown is facing in addition to the fraud counts.
Now, the non-profits themselves are testifying that- while Brown has in many cases done important work to help boost their organizations- the donations are not stacking up.
In 2014, Brown claimed a $3500 donation to the Clara White Mission. The President and CEO of that organization, Ju’Coby Pittman says they have many procedures in place to closely track and record donations, and that her staff would also let her know if a sitting Congresswoman made a donation of that size. Not only does she have no recollection of such a donation, but she says the Mission has no records documenting a donation from Brown any year since 2009.
The General Manager of New Destiny Christian Center, Doug Shackelford, says they kept close records of contributions, and those records show some donations from Brown, but nothing close to what she claimed in her filings. As an example, Brown claimed $2,500 in donations in 2013. Shackelford says there records show only a $50 contribution.
On cross-examination, Shackleford told the court there are a few donations that aren’t tracked- specifically if someone gives without submitting their information. He added that Brown never approached the Center to say there was any problem with her statement.
Brown’s tax preparer Dawn Wright says she is not required to have documentation to support a claimed deduction, although it’s preferred. She testified that they’re able to take Brown at her word, although Wright said she did get uncomfortable as the receipts fell off in recent years.
There were other years where Brown did provide letters acknowledging and thanking her for her contributions from different organizations, but testimony is showing a conflict between what was on paper and reality.
Brown worships at Bethel Baptist Church, and during the years studied in this investigation, there was record of her donating every year. Between 2008 and 2011, the receipts matched the contributions Brown claimed on her taxes. From 2012 to 2014, the receipts weren’t submitted on her returns. Prosecutors later found the receipts, and learned the donations Brown was claiming in that time were higher than what the Church’s books reflected, sometimes by a few thousand dollars.
In 2015- after this investigation began- the numbers were matching and the receipt was submitted once again.
The Community Rehabilitation Center is a local non-profit that has come up in testimony on several occasions through this trial, in part because Brown claimed years of deductions from donations to the organization. In fact, on her 2010 return, she tried to deduct $10,000 worth of her “time”- but when that was denied by her tax preparer, Brown filed a new letter that acknowledged a $10,000 contribution of goods. The government’s investigation would eventually find that one of her staffers had a file which contained several versions of a CRC donor letter, including one that wasn’t signed and one that didn’t have a donation amount.
CRC Fiscal Manager Dawn Smith told the court that, despite the letters to Brown, their books show no record of a cash or check deposit from Brown in any year since 2008. The CRC Executive Director Reginald Gaffney- who is now a Jacksonville City Councilman- signed that donor letter several years.
On cross examination, Smith admitted that- prior to when she started in her current role two years ago- the record keeping connected to their donations was “challenged”. She acknowledged that, while they couldn’t find record of a donation, she couldn’t definitively say none had occurred.
Another institution which Brown claimed donations to over several years is Edward Waters College. Several employees of the College- including its President- painted a complicated picture that shows Brown may have recently claimed donated furniture that she actually gave more than 15 years ago.
EWC President Nat Glover says he tries to personally acknowledge any contribution to the College that’s over $2,000 or so, and he would be notified if a sitting Congresswoman had made any substantial contribution. Brown submitted EWC letters in three years of her recent returns claiming a $12,000 donation of furniture in 2008, an $8,000 donation of furniture in 2009, and a $9,500 contribution in 2011. Glover started serving as interim President of EWC in May 2010, and that position became permanent in 2011. Glover testified that the claimed 2011 contribution was never brought to his attention, and further the EWC books do not show any cash contribution of that amount of Brown.
What he did know is Brown claimed to have donated the furniture in the Office of the President and Presidential Conference Room, and he didn’t think the total $20,000 valuation of that furniture was unreasonable. Therefore, when the EWC Office of Institutional Advancement said Brown was seeking letters to back up those donations, Glover said not to “split hairs”, and that he had every reason to believe the Congresswoman was being truthful.
The Vice President of Institutional Advancement, Eurmon Hervey, was more hesitant, though.
Hervey says he got a call from a higher up at EWC saying Brown said she hadn’t been acknowledged for several gifts previously given. Testimony from an IRS employee showed an auditor, Brown, and some representatives of Brown met mid 2010 in connection to Brown’s claims of charitable contribution, and the phone call to EWC came just a few days before that sit down.
Hervey didn’t have firsthand knowledge of the furniture being donated, except that it was in place when he joined the institution in 2009. He says Glover recommended they give Brown the benefit of the doubt.
In regard to the $9,500 contribution claimed in Brown’s 2011 return, Hervey says he had a lot of “apprehension” signing that. They got a similar call as with the furniture, saying Brown hadn’t been acknowledged, but Hervey says he told them he would not write the letter. A few days later, he says Brown made an unannounced stop at this office, pointing out items in the conference room she claimed to have donated- including a series of collector dolls. He believed those items had all been there for years.
“Did you feel you were forced to write this letter?” asked Assistant US Attorney A. Tysen Duva.
“I will say that a visit from a sitting Congresswoman is certainly unexpected,” Hervey responded.
He further said he likely wouldn’t have written the letter if Brown herself hadn’t showed up.
“Yes, this is not the way it’s always done,” Hervey said.
Two more witnesses gave greater details on the timeline- both testifying that the furniture and dolls in question had been at EWC well before the years Brown was claiming. Charles McCormick has worked at EWC for 18 years, currently serving in business and finance. He says the Presidential Suite- including the office and conference room- were refurbished around 2001-2002, and that’s when most of the furniture came in, if not earlier. The only exception was a glass case and the content, including the dolls, but McCormick says those were in place by 2005. Another longtime employee, Linda Foster, further testified that she believed all of the furniture was installed before she joined EWC in 2003.
McCormick says Brown was, in fact, involved in donating the furniture- because he remembered her saying how she wanted it laid out. He did not have firsthand knowledge whether Brown had paid for the furniture.
Most of these groups spoke of Brown as a champion for their causes. Pittman says they were having funding for a housing project held up, but one phone call to Brown and it was fixed in less than a day. Glover says Brown was available to help them with legislative issues and other needs.
The prosecution has now rested its case.
Brown is facing several counts of filing a false tax return as part of the greater indictment connected to “One Door For Education”. That’s a group Brown and two others are accused of promoting as a non-profit, in order to solicit donations they were actually using for their own personal expenses. Those two alleged co-conspirators- her former Chief of Staff Ronnie Simmons and the One Door President Carla Wiley- have both pleaded guilty and testified for the prosecution.
WOKV is inside of the courtroom following all of the testimony. Get frequent updates from our reporter Stephanie Brown on Twitter.
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.
If not for cash transfers- which in part included money from an alleged “sham” charity- now-former Congresswoman Corrine Brown would have been financially in the red.
And the account of the “charity” she’s accused of taking money from was not on solid footing either.
FBI Forensic Accountant Kimberly Henderson walked month-by-month through Brown’s income and expenditures, in testimony during Brown’s federal fraud trial. She considered Brown’s salary from the House of Representatives, her pension from the State of Florida, and any other non-cash deposits across Brown’s accounts, and compared that to the amount of money that was going out, dating back to 2009. Many of the months showed Brown’s spending outpaced her income- often by thousands of dollars, and on one occasion as much as around $9700.
FULL COVERAGE: Federal fraud trial of now-former Congresswoman Corrine Brown
Not all of the months that were studied correspond to a time when Brown is believed to have been getting money from One Door For Education, but prosecutors are working to continually boost their take on a long-term motive- which is that Brown was living outside of her means, and needed to supplement her income to cover that.
Brown and two others are accused of soliciting more than $800,000 in donations to One Door, and using the money for their personal expenses instead. Cash deposits to Brown stopped in January 2016, which is when Henderson says the FBI went “public” with the case, meaning they started interviewing people- including Carla Wiley and Ronnie Simmons.
Henderson says they tried to screen out cash deposits that were considered “normal”- for example, Brown’s brother would occasionally pay her back for a mortgage they were splitting that was drawing off Brown’s account. Henderson also looked for any cash deposits that were in close proximity and amount to cash withdraws, which could potentially show Brown had taken money from an ATM and was putting back the balance she didn’t use.
The intent was to leave the cash to reflect money that was ultimately funneled from One Door For Education, donors to the group, or other organizations that made checks to cash, and then allegedly gave the money to Brown, as Brown continued to live outside of her means. Some of the organizations that were studied include her campaign account, her legal fund, and an affiliated PAC.
A few of the transactions which prosecutors haven’t focused on until now include a Jacksonville non-profit, the Community Rehabilitation Center. Now-Jacksonville City Councilman Reggie Gaffney is the Executive Director of the CRC, and Stanley Twiggs was at one point a senior official as well. Brown’s tax returns show claims of frequent donations of money and goods to the CRC, but a file found with one of Brown’s staffers also shows that she was in possession of multiple versions of a donor letter from the organization, including one that was unsigned, and one that didn’t have an amount filled in. Henderson says she found no record in Brown’s accounts of any donation to the CRC.
Henderson says, in 2011, Twiggs formed a for-profit corporation called Community Rehabilitation Center Transportation Inc.. Later on, Twiggs filed articles of incorporation for LaPool Training & Education LLC. In 2010, Gaffney also formed the for-profit company Northwest Services Inc.
In July 2010, bank records show LaPool got $6,000 from the CRC. Henderson says Twiggs then withdrew $5,100 cash, and the same day as that withdrawal, $4,900 was deposited in to the bank account of Brown. The next month, Lapool got $3,000 from Northwest Support Services. Henderson says a countercheck was written for the same amount the next day, and then $1,700 in cash was deposited in to Brown’s account. Another instance in October 2011 shows CRC Transportation making a $4,000 check to “cash”- with Gaffney’s signature- and then $4,000 in cash being deposited in to Brown’s account about 20 minutes later. Henderson says there are even more examples that show a similar pattern. This all pre-dated One Door’s existence relating to this case.
Specifically with these transactions, Henderson says she found no evidence that Simmons was involved. Simmons is the man Brown’s defense is putting the blame on- saying he took advantage of Brown as she became more reliant on him.
For some of the expenses, Henderson also had surveillance showing Brown was hands on with cash deposits. There were also deposit slips that were reportedly signed by Brown. Brown’s attorney, James Smith III, asked Henderson how she knew that it was Brown’s signature. Henderson said she went by what the records were showing, but confirmed she is not a handwriting expert.
When Smith further pressed what information Henderson had when putting together the charts and examples, she said she was records driven. She looked at the financial and bank records for a range of people and organizations, but confirmed she did not do any of the interviews with the parties involved, saying instead that was up to the agents and investigators. Because of that, she had no knowledge of whether Simmons had a card for Brown’s account or whether he potentially admitted to taking money from Brown, all in connection to some of the ATM withdrawals off Brown’s account.
When it comes to One Door’s account specifically, Henderson says she noticed some definite patterns.
A chart she assembled reflects the balance on the One Door account at the end of every day. Each year, there would be a big uptick in September- which corresponds to when Brown would host a reception at the Congressional Black Caucus’ Annual Legislative Conference. Prosecutors say money that was donated to One Door was used to put on these events. As an example, in early September 2013, the balance on the One Door account was just over $7,000. That peaked around $35,000, before dropping back down below $4,000 at the end of the month. For the rest of that year, the account was under $10,000- sometimes only a few hundred dollars, and sometimes negative.
At no point did Henderson find any record of Brown directly contributing to One Door. She also says there was no record of One Door spending on computers for children, despite apparently having solicited donors for a computer drive.
One Door donors unwittingly supplementing these events, freeing up money to go to Brown, though, according to Henderson’s analysis. In addition to some of the transactions previously vetted in testimony about checks being funneled through the business of a Brown staffer and ultimately deposited with Brown or her daughter, Henderson showed a few other transactions that came at times when the accounts of One Door and Brown were either low, or negative.
One such transaction was January 2014, when John Picerne wrote a $10,000 check to One Door- which was a couple of hundred dollars in the red. The check was deposited within a few days, and a few days after that, there was an $800 ATM withdrawal from the account and $800 deposit in to Brown’s account- which was under $1000. Wiley then also spent the next few days transferring or withdrawing thousands of dollars to cover her own expenses.
There were two examples where Henderson says she found essentially a double-draw for an event. One instance connected to a Beyonce concert in July 2013. The catering estimate for that event was $3,055.16, but a receipt for the event showed the actual total came out to $3,582.62. The One Door debit card was used to cover the actual bill, but Henderson also traced a One Door check for the initial estimated amount- which had been written with no date or “pay to” initially- through various steps and ultimately cashed in to Brown’s account.
Another $4900 bill for the entertainment for a reception hosted by Brown was covered by Picerne Development directly, although Henderson says she also found a One Door check to Simmons for the same amount, which was then shuffled between Simmons and Brown.
WOKV is inside of the federal courthouse as testimony continues. Follow our reporter Stephanie Brown on Twitter for developing information.
While the focus of now-former Congresswoman Corrine Brown’s federal trial so far has been the fraud and related charges she’s facing, the tax violations facing her took center stage Tuesday.
One of Brown’s tax preparers says she became increasingly uncomfortable as the amount of documentation to support Brown’s alleged charitable giving fell off over the years. A staffer was also found to have some documentation that hadn’t been submitted, but she says everything she gathered and turned in- or didn’t- was at the direction of Brown.
Brown gets her taxes done through Portnoy CPA, and Dawn Wright has worked on those returns for a number of years. Overall, she described Brown’s individual income tax returns as “relatively straightforward”, except for the fact that they were filed in October of the following year- when all of the extensions had been maxed out.
When the returns were taken one year at a time, though, prosecutors started to highlight some questions. Overall, they’re accusing Brown of both under-reporting her income and over-reporting her charitable giving.
Much of the information reflected in the tax returns was compiled by Brown’s Area Director in Jacksonville, Carolyn Chatman, who would communicate directly with Brown. She told the court that any of the information she wrote for charitable giving, including how much was given to charity, she got straight from Brown.
For all of the returns in question, Brown’s only reported sources of income have been her salary from the House of Representatives- which has ranged between about $160,000 and $180,000- and her pension from the state of Florida from her time as a state lawmaker. Prosecutors asked Wright on several occasions whether Brown had reported any income from other various sources, and her answer was consistently no. The government believes Brown should have reported money she was allegedly receiving from a group she promoted as a charity, One Door For Education. The focus of the trial is that she and two others raised hundreds of thousands of dollars in donations for that group, but used the money instead on personal expenses.
FBI Forensic Accountant Kimberly Henderson there were several other entities that gave money which ultimately wound up in Brown’s bank account as well- although testimony showed it wasn’t declared as income. Henderson tracked checks from the Community Rehabilitation Center non-profit, Northwest Support Services Inc for-profit, and Lapool Transportation and Education for-profit, which she believes were converted to cash and deposited with Brown. The CRC’s Executive Director Reginald Gaffney is behind Northwest, and a former CRC official Stanley Twiggs founded Lapool.
With charitable giving, there were questions not only with the paperwork backing some of the claimed donations, but with what Brown was actually trying to deduct.
There have been multiple witnesses testifying on these returns. WOKV has compiled them in to this comprehensive look.
On her 2008 return, Brown claimed about $23,505 in cash or check donations to various churches, Edward Waters College, and the Community Rehabilitation Center. That year, she did not make any “in kind” contributions- or donations of tangible items, like furniture- rather than money.
Included in the documents prosecutors received as a result of a subpoena on Portnoy, though, was a letter from EWC thanking Brown for her “generous gift of conference room furniture and accessories” for the Presidential Conference Room, which was valued at $12,000. The letter indicated the donation was made in 2008, but the letter itself was dated July 2010- which is well after the return itself was filed.
To give context to the date, IRS revenue agent Tracy Lane testified about an audit she did of Brown’s 2008 return, in 2010. She was tasked with looking at specific areas, including charitable contributions, to ensure there was documentation and verification to support the deductions.
Lane says she met with a few people representing Brown- including an attorney and a tax preparer- on July 9, 2010, which was two days after the date on the EWC letter. She acknowledged that the amount on the EWC letter and what Brown claimed did not match, and there was also a discrepancy between whether she contributed cash/check or in kind items. Because the amount Brown claimed is less than what the letter attested to, Lane says she ultimately signed off on the audit, which found the return did not need to change.
She says she took the supporting documents at face value.
Brown’s 2009 return includes a letter from EWC with the same date on it as the letter submitted for 2008, and it appears to say the same thing, but instead the value of the donated property is $8,000. This year’s return did reflect an $8,000 in-kind contribution, in addition to $18,120 in various cash and check donations.
The largest donation was $12,000 to the Community Rehabilitation Center, but emails between the Portnoy team and Brown’s assistant, Carolyn Chatman, show Brown had not provided the paperwork to support that donation by the time they were ready to file the return. On October 13, 2010, a Portnoy staffer emailed that they were filing the return without the CRC donation, and that would mean a lower refund Brown would get back. The file then indicates that on October 14th, Portnoy got a letter from the CRC thanking Brown for her donation. That letter was dated March 30, 2010, and signed by the CRC Executive Director Reginald Gaffney, who is now a Jacksonville City Councilman.
Two key questions in 2010’s return are first, a deduction Brown claimed for her time, and second, a substantial donation that was only declared after Portnoy sent Brown her return- which showed that she would only be getting back $756 dollars.
In the initial return, Brown had claimed $5,221 cash and check donations, and $10,000 in kind. A letter from the CRC dated August 17, 2011 thanks Brown for her contribution of “time”, which is valued at $10,000.
“You have contributed to helping to establish a brighter future for the multitude of people in need of every possible ray of hope,” the letter says.
Wright told Brown that time could not be deducted, though. When they were set to file the return itself, there was a new letter from the CRC which had the same date as the prior letter, but thanked Brown instead for her $10,000 donation of household goods, law equipment, computers, and other like items.
When the government subpoenaed the files of Chatman- who is the staffer that helped Brown compile information for these returns- we’re told they found several versions of this CRC letter, including one that was not signed and one that did not have a donation amount written in. Chatman says she’s unsure how that got in her file.
Another difference from the draft to the final return was a $9,500 cash or check contribution to EWC that wasn’t disclosed on the initial return. The addition of that donation boosted Brown’s anticipated refund from the IRS to $3,416- or $2,660 more than what she was initially sent.
Still a third potential complication with the 2010 return actually came almost two years after the return itself was filed. Brown filled out an amended return because of a few changes in connection to her mortgage rate. The change resulted in Brown owing the government $2,057.
Prosecutors have previously alleged that she paid that bill with money that was funneled from One Door For Education, and there is a check Brown wrote to the IRS that’s been shown a few times through the trial. Chatman, however, says Brown told her to hold the amended return, rather than file it- so it’s unclear at this point whether that was actually submitted.
Brown’s 2011 return claimed another in kind donation to the CRC- $9,000 worth of jewelry, clothing, and other items. That came with $19,720 in cash or check contributions to a variety of churches and a few other organizations, including FAMU, EWC, Urban League, and Bethune Cookman.
Of the cash and check contributions, Wright says they didn’t have documentation to support all of the claims. While they prefer to have paperwork backing all of the claims, she says they were willing to take Brown at her word for the balance, because they didn’t have any reason to believe it wasn’t accurate.
Giving some level of increased confidence is the fact that- for all of these years of returns- Brown authorized electronic filing. To do that, she had to sign a form that included her verifying the accuracy of the return, under the penalty of law.
2011 was another year there was an amended return required because of mortgage rate changes, but Portnoy’s records can not definitively conclude whether Brown actually filed that return. It is the responsibility of Brown, not Portnoy, to file the amended returns.
For 2012’s return, Brown’s donation claims were submitted a slightly different way- the list from the prior year was a foundation on which a few things were crossed out and a few more added by staff, and that was sent to Wright. This is the first time that One Door appears, with Brown saying she donated $12,500.
Henderson, the FBI Forensic Accountant, says her analysis of thousands of pages of financial information connected to Brown and One Door show Brown did not make any donation to the organization at any point.
Wright says she spoke with Brown to confirm the list of donations, which included Brown telling her to bump up the estimated value of an in kind donation to the CRC.
This is also the first return where there was no documentation submitted to back the donation claim to Bethel Baptist. Later testimony showed, however, that there was a receipt available- but the amount didn’t match. It’s the first of a few years where this discrepancy was found.
Chatman’s file for this year showed Bethel Baptist verified a $3700 donation. The amount claimed on Brown’s return was $3980. Chatman says she wrote the amount for the return to reflect whatever Brown told her.
Several entities Brown had not donated to in the prior few years surface on this year’s return, including $35 to the Alzheimer’s Association, and $20 to the University of Florida. Wright says several of the donations again did not have documents submitted backing them up, including a $5,000 contribution to One Door and $6,100 donation to Bethel Baptist.
Chatman’s file shows a receipt for $3,445 for Bethel Baptist.
Of the letters that were submitted, the one from the CRC issued 2/27/14 acknowledged her contribution in 2013, but was signed by a different party than all of the prior CRC letters.
The verification of the accuracy of this year’s tax return and permission to electronically file was not signed in the appropriate space. While prosecutors started to question Wright on whether the signature looked like Brown’s to begin with, that line of questioning was stopped after an objection by the defense.
This is one of only a few occassions prosecutors showed Chatman actively communicating with Brown’s Chief of Staff Ronnie Simmons in an effort to gather some of the information needed to complete the return, specifically asking for some of the new numbers in regard to the amount of charitable giving.
There were no documents to support a $3500 donation to the Clara White Mission, $7200 donation to Bethel Baptist, $6500 donation to the CRC, $7000 donation to One Door, or $2500 donation to New Destiny which were all claimed in the return. As with the last few years, there was a Bethel Baptist receipt in Chatman’s file, showing $4,378.
Prosecutors asked Wright if she was comfortable only getting verbal confirmation on all of these donations, and she was not.
“Because it was so late in the year, and previous years it was late in the year, and we were starting not to get documentation as years progressed,” Wright says.
Brown’s defense attorney, James Smith III, pointed out that Wright generally communicated with Chatman- and on a rare occasion Simmons- when putting together these returns. While Chatman says she got almost all of the information she used in this process from Brown, she said that would occasionally funnel through Simmons, or she would sometimes seek his help.
The defense has continually blamed Simmons for the core issues in this case, saying Brown relied on him to handle her finances and many other matters, and that Simmons betrayed that trust. Smith has been working to put distance between Brown and knowledge of any wrongdoing.
Smith also questioned whether Wright had ever told Brown about her concerns about the decreasing amount of documentation to back up the donations. She says she never told Brown personally, although someone else in her firm might have. Generally, she would instead seek documentation from Chatman.
With the audit which showed some discrepancy in the donation claimed to EWC in amount and type, Smith pointed out that the amount that was claimed by Brown was less than what was reflected in the letter, and therefore she submitted for a smaller deduction than she would conceivably be allowed.
WOKV is inside of the courtroom following all of the latest testimony. Follow our reporter Stephanie Brown on Twitter for updates as new information is available.
New testimony is linking now-former Congresswoman Corrine Brown to some of the questionable expenses from an alleged “sham” charity.
Consultant Von Alexander, who was a part-time staffer for Brown’s Jacksonville office for some 15 years, was involved in cashing checks and depositing money in the accounts of both Brown and Brown’s daughter Shantrel Brown. Alexander says she was never in a position to question Brown’s direction on how the checks were being handled.
Prosecutors walked her through numerous transactions, where Alexander’s company- The Alexander Agency- would get a check from One Door For Education or from Friends of Corrine Brown. One Door is the group that was being represented by Brown and two others as a charity, with prosecutors saying they were soliciting money to use for their own personal expenses instead. After depositing the One Door or FOCB check, Alexander would then write a check from her business to “cash”, and then deposit the cash in to the accounts of Corrine and Shantrel Brown. She says Brown always directed her how to fill out the checks and how to handle the subsequent deposits.
Alexander says Brown told her the transactions related to reimbursements she was seeking for various expenses she had fronted out of pocket. Alexander says she would follow up with Brown’s Chief of Staff Ronnie Simmons to get paperwork to verify that these transactions were valid reimbursements, and while Simmons would tell Alexander he had the paperwork, it was “rarely” ultimately given to Alexander.
Additionally, the memo lines on the checks generally didn’t match as the transactions worked their way through these various steps. One example is a $10,000 check from a surgical center with “printing” in the memo line. The donor behind this says Brown asked for money for a commemorative edition of a magazine about her, but Brown told him to leave the “pay to” line blank. Alexander says Simmons ultimately made the check payable to The Alexander Agency in this case, and the check was sent to her to be disbursed to Brown and her daughter over the course of a few days. Although the initial check indicated the money was for printing, the subsequent check from The Alexander Agency to “cash” had things like “canvassing” in the memo lines.
Alexander says she always filled out the memo lines- including in this case- at the direction of Brown. None of the memo lines said reimbursement.
FULL COVERAGE: Federal fraud trial of now-former Rep. Corrine Brown
Alexander says most of the checks were actually signed by Simmons, forging the names of either Carla Wiley, the President of One Door, or Gloria Simmons, who was with Friends of Corrine Brown. Alexander says she never questioned that because it had been “protocol” since she worked in the office.
In her experience, Alexander says it would be unusual to handle reimbursements in this manner, but she didn’t question Brown.
The main issue raised by Brown’s defense, James Smith III, was whether Alexander’s memory could be trusted. Prosecutors had her talk about a surgery to remove a brain tumor, which left her with some memory challenges. Alexander says, through rehab, she learned how to work around those challenges, and was comfortable with what she was saying based on her recollection and documents she reviewed.
Smith also questioned Alexander’s own financial position. As part of the string of transactions that stemmed from the surgical center check, Alexander told the court she had asked Brown for a couple of hundred dollars. Alexander says Brown would always help her when she could.
There was one check which was cashed with the help of another party, who also testified Monday.
Alexander says she reached out to Siottis Jackson in September 2015 because she had to go out of town, but Brown needed a check handled. Alexander made a check from her business to Jackson for $2200, with healthcare initiative in the memo line. Alexander says she wrote the check for $2200, because those were the funds available.
Jackson had been working with Brown since mid-2015, when he says Brown noticed him for a Jacksonville City Council campaign he was involved in. He did some research work for Brown, and was ultimately paid for that work through FOCB.
He says he picked up the check, deposited it, and then withdrew the cash to deposit the money in Brown’s account. He says he wasn’t nervous about depositing the money, because he trusted Brown.
Alexander says she has never been paid back by Brown for the $2200 the check took from her business.
WOKV is inside of the federal courthouse through the trial. Get frequent updates by following our reporter Stephanie Brown on Twitter.
She was the first to plead guilty in connection to the case, and now, she’s the first of the alleged co-conspirators to take the stand.
Carla Wiley was the President of One Door For Education- a group to honor Wiley’s mother, Amy Anderson, through scholarships and other opportunities for students pursuing a future in the education field. Wiley is one of three people who have been accused of representing that group as a non-profit and soliciting more than $800,000 in donations over several years, but allegedly using the money for personal expenses, travel, and events instead. The other two alleged co-conspirators are now-former Congresswoman Corrine Brown and her Chief of Staff Ronnie Simmons, who was dating Wiley.
Both Wiley and Simmons have already pleaded guilty and agreed to cooperate with the government, as Brown now stands trial.
Wiley says the day before the FBI visited her office for their initial interview in January 2016, she got a call from Brown, Simmons, and Brown’s daughter Shantrel, where they told Wiley she did not need to speak with the FBI. She says the others on the call had already been interviewed by the FBI, and Brown did not seem surprised that investigators were looking in to One Door. Wiley says the FBI was at her office for about two hours the next day, and she lied about One Door’s charitable activity and how the money was being spent.
“The main reason was fear. I felt like if I lied and had them leave the office, it was all going to go away,” Wiley said.
She says she then got a lawyer, and soon agreed to cooperate with the government.
Wiley says the fraud case stems from 2012, when she and Simmons were boating. The two were dating at the time and had actually been in a relationship about five or six years prior. She says Simmons told her he needed a non-profit to host an event for Brown, so she offered up One Door. She gave Simmons the checks and debit card for One Door, believing that he would manage the funds “correctly”. After she gave up the checks and debit card, she says she could only access the bank account online or in person at the bank.
She told the court Simmons would frequently forge her name on checks from One Door. In fact, of the two scholarships that were ever given by One Door, Wiley says the first- a $1,000 check from her personal account, was legitimate. The second check- for $200 from the One Door account- was signed by Wiley, but Wiley says it was in Simmons’ handwriting and she hadn’t been aware of the check until it was shown to her as the result of this investigation.
Once she handed over the checks and debit card, Wiley says Simmons essentially took control of the organization- although she maintained the title of President. She says she would only communicate with donors when Simmons told her to, and that Simmons and Brown did all of the fundraising. While One Door had a Board- including a Treasurer- Wiley says they weren’t active.
In fact, Wiley says she at one point told Simmons that the group’s Treasurer was getting suspicious, in the hopes that it would change how the account was being used. She admitted that was a lie, and the Treasurer had not said anything to her.
She told the court that she did not let Simmons or Brown know that she was transferring One Door money in to her own account online to use for personal expenses, including car payments for her and her son. She also said she didn’t initially realize Simmons was also allegedly funneling money to his own use.
After a special golf tournament hosted by One Door in 2013, Wiley says she realized lots of money was coming in to the group, but scholarships weren’t going out. Those suspicions were confirmed when she and Simmons went on a romantic trip to South Florida, including staying at a luxury hotel, and Wiley says she thought Simmons had treated her to the trip. She later learned the One Door account was used to pay the expenses.
Of the big events that allegedly used One Door funding- including a golf tournament, Jaguars game, and Beyonce concert luxury suite- Wiley says she did not see any promotion or discussion of scholarship opportunities and charitable giving.
Brown’s defense is putting all of the blame for what happened on Simmons and Wiley. Brown’s attorney, James Smith III, says Brown became increasingly dependent on Simmons to handle her travel, finances, and more, and Simmons betrayed that trust.
Smith also worked to cast doubt on Wiley’s credibility, by showing that she was in charge of registering One Door as a non-profit, and that even though she knew it wasn’t registered, she would still solicit donations.
It’s not something the prosecution tried to hide.
“Did you lie to get donations to One Door For Education?” asked Justice Department Public Integrity Section Deputy Chief Eric Olshan.
“Yes,” Wiley responded.
“Did you use One Door for Education money for your own benefit?” from Olshan.
“Yes,” Wiley answered again.
GALLERY: One Door For Education’s website
Wiley was the first to plead guilty back in March 2016. Brown and Simmons were indicted in July 2016.
She was charged by information for one count of conspiracy to commit wire fraud- a count to which she pleaded guilty. She could face up to twenty years in prison and a $250,000 fine, but is hoping for leniency as a result of her cooperation with the government. While there is no promise of any sentencing recommendation that will result from the plea deal, the defense questioned Wiley to show prosecutors don’t make any recommendation until Wiley’s testimony is done.
“You’re scare of going to prison, right?” asked Brown’s defense James Smith III.
“Yes,” Wiley said.
Simmons is expected to testify later this week. He also agreed to cooperate with prosecutors as part of his plea agreement. He was indicted on 19 charges and pleaded guilty to two- conspiracy to commit mail and wire fraud, and theft of government funds. He could be sentenced to twenty years in prison for the conspiracy charge and ten years for the theft charge.
During the jury selection process, the panel was told to carefully consider the testimony of anyone who accepted a plea deal, because they are hoping to gain favor with the government. They were also instructed, however, that plea bargaining in itself is an accepted and allowable practice.
Brown is facing 22 charges, including conspiracy to commit mail and wire fraud, aiding and abetting mail fraud, aiding and abetting wire fraud, scheme to conceal material facts, corrupt endeavor to obstruct and impede the due administration of internal revenue law, and filing false tax returns. If convicted on all counts, she could be sentenced to more than 350 years in prison.
The jury must be unanimous to either convict or acquit Brown on the charges.
WOKV is inside of the courtroom following the latest testimony. Get updates by following our reporter Stephanie Brown on Twitter, and check back at WOKV.com for updates through the day.
One of the money trails prosecutors are following in the federal fraud trial of now-former Congresswoman Corrine Brown deals with funds solicited for computers for middle school students.
Multiple donors say they were asked by Brown to fund the project, but the money that was used traced back to Brown’s campaign group, according to evidence presented by prosecutors so far.
FULL COVERAGE: Federal fraud trial of now-former Congresswoman Corrine Brown
The project was part of an initiation in to a service organization called The Links, according to Ingrid Burch, who was behind the project. She says Brown joined around the same time as her, in mid-2013.
Burch bought 33 laptop from the Duval County surplus, paying the $1,420 with her own money. She submitted to be reimbursed for the purchase, but could only find receipts for $1,350 of the $1,420. She added in her testimony that the laptops were refurbished, but basic, and that the service project then additionally funded software and accessories for the computers. While she didn’t say how much the additional outfitting cost or where that money came from, the estimated project cost detailed in information she worked up about the project pinned the estimated cost at $5,000 overall.
Burch says she submitted the receipts to someone who worked with Brown, because Brown had found a donor to cover the expense- something Burch says they were “blessed” to have. Burch also sent information she worked up about the project, which spoke about encouraging minority youth- specifically 6th grade girls at Eugene Butler- to find their “intellectual purpose” by having a laptop to use at home to support their learning.
She asked to be reimbursed by May 24, 2013. Just ahead of that, Burch says she picked up Brown at the airport, and Brown said she had a check for Burch, but it had been made out to the wrong person by mistake. On May 24, 2013, Burch says she got a check for $1,420, although she doesn’t remember who gave it to her. The check was written by The Alexander Agency- a group Burch has no knowledge of.
The Alexander Agency is associated with longtime Brown staffer Vonn Alexander. Prosecutors showed not just the check in question that went to Burch, but a check from Friends of Corrine Brown to The Alexander Agency for the same amount- $1,420- that was written the day prior. The memo line on the check from Friends of Corrine Brown was “laptops”.
One the same day Friends of Corrine Brown wrote the check to The Alexander Agency, Friends of Corrine Brown made out another check- for $1,350- to Corrine Brown herself. Prosecutors pointed out that amount is the same as what Burch submitted for reimbursement because of the missing receipt. The memo line on that check was “refund”. While being questioned by prosecutors, Burch says she didn’t believe Brown had put any money toward the laptops, although there was no mention of who funded the software and accessories.
During cross examination, Brown’s attorney had Burch confirm that she was, in fact, reimbursed for the money she had put out, and that the students had received the laptops.
One email chain shows Brown’s Chief of Staff Ronnie Simmons had tried to run the donation for the computers through another way.
When Jessica Lazzara Wynne started working with her family’s Foundation, one of her first tasks was ensuring the organizations they were donating to were all 501(c)(3) groups. In this process, she learned One Door was not registered, and reached out to Simmons- who is an alleged co-conspirator who’s already pleaded guilty in this case.
An email chain between Lazzara Wynne and Simmons in June 2013 showed Lazzara Wynne’s father had committed to the Congresswoman that he would pay $5,000 for the computers for The Links. The email indicates Brown had told Lazzara Wynne she had paid for the computers and was seeking reimbursement.
Lazarra Wynne told Simmons the Foundation would only donate to a 501(c)(3), though, and Lazzara Wynne had previously determined One Door was not properly registered- so they would not write the check either to Brown or One Door. Simmons responded by telling her to make the check out to the Community Rehabilitation Center Foundation. Lazzara Wynne says she didn’t know what the CRC was or how money donated there would help fund the computer program. They ultimately did not write the check.
As the defense continues to put the blame on Simmons, Lazzara Wynne agreed that Brown herself was not involved in the communication on where to make the check out to. Her father also said in prior testimony that they did not communicate to Brown when they discovered One Door was not a registered non-profit, speaking instead to Simmons.
What was not mentioned during this questioning was any money from One Door For Education, which is the group Brown and a few others represented as a charity to solicit more than $800,000 in donations, but the government argues was actually used for personal expenses and lavish events. Burch says she didn’t know about One Door at the time.
Others say they donated to One Door for computers or iPads, although that hasn’t been linked to this project. One example is Stephen Bittel, who’s $5,000 contribution to One Door was invoiced for “annual student computer drive”.
The service project for The Links is not the only time The Alexander Agency has come up in the testimony so far. Another instance deals with a commemorative edition of Onyx magazine featuring Brown on the cover. The magazine says it was funded by Friends of Corrine Brown, but prosecutors say the money actually came through One Door donors.
Don Miller, the Director of Government Affairs for Picerne Development Corporation, says he tried to talk his boss, Robert Picerne, out of giving for the magazine. Ultimately, prosecutors showed a $5,000 invoice from the company to Onyx magazine for 20,000 copies.
The check that Richard Lipsky wrote for $10,000, though, was ultimately made to pay to The Alexander Agency.
Lipsky said he and a driver picked up Brown and her daughter Shantrel at the airport one day, and Brown showed him the magazine while asking for support to complete it. Lipsky agreed to contribute $10,000, and wrote a check with the memo line “printing”, but left the pay to line blank. He says he did that because Brown wasn’t sure who to make it out to at the time and told him that she would figure it out.
Alexander is expected to testify Monday.
WOKV is inside of the courtroom through these proceedings. Continue to check wokv.com for frequent updates.
The 2013 Corrine Brown Invitational Golf Tournament was advertised “to benefit the COMTO Jacksonville Chapter Scholarship Fund and other community non-profits”, but the head of COMTO says they have no record of any money coming in from the event.
Testimony Friday in the federal fraud trial of now-former Congresswoman Corrine Brown has focused on events allegedly funded by donations to a “sham” charity, One Door For Education, and whether those events actually did anything for charitable giving.
An FBI Special Agent on the case previously told the court that bank and financial records showed more than $55,000 from One Door was used toward this golf tournament at TPC Sawgrass. The event took place during the same time frame that the Conference of Minority Transportation Officials- or COMTO- was holding an annual conference in Jacksonville, and the President of COMTO at the time did attend the event.
Current COMTO President and CEO Brad Mims testified that their records show One Door made no donation to their scholarship fund, either at the national or local level. When prosecutors asked what a $25,000 donation to the organization directly would have meant, Mims said it breaks down to five or six scholarships.
Brown’s defense, James Smith III, questioned Mims whether he was at that event, and he was not. He added that he could not speak to any networking or future donation opportunities that may have been discussed at the event, only that their records did not reflect any hard giving.
Another event that allegedly tapped One Door funds- about $15,000 worth- is a luxury box at a Jaguars-Redskins game in DC. The head of the Florida Democratic Party, Stephen Bittel, says he paid more than $11,000 for his private plane to take people he believed to be One Door donors to what he thought was a fundraiser in DC. He also says he didn’t know Brown herself would be on the plane for the ride up to DC. Prosecutors say there was no fundraising done during the game.
One of the people who was invited on the plane along with his family was Jack Hanania. Hanania says he had refused a requested $10,000-$12,000 donation to Brown’s campaign, but when he heard about One Door’s mission to help youth in education, he agreed to contribute $7,000.
“Corrine knows how to raise money,” he says.
Hanania told the court after he donated, he was invited to the game- including on the plane with Brown- but his understanding was that these were separate. He told prosecutors he believed at the time that his donation to One Door was going to charity, and the event was being covered by other dollars.
An email from Brown’s Chief of Staff Ronnie Simmons showed reference to a FedEx label to send the “payment” Hanania was making. That same email inquired who Hanania would be bringing on the plane with him, in reference to the football game. Hanania says he understood the payment to refer to his One Door donation, and not anything connected to the game itself- although it’s a distinction that Smith pointed out is far from clear on paper.
Prosecutors have also frequently questioned an annual reception held in Brown’s honor in conjunction with- although not affiliated with- the Congressional Black Caucus Foundation’s Annual Leadership Conference, which allegedly gets tens of thousands of dollars in One Door money. Smith has worked to show that there are valuable networking and development opportunities at this annual event- even if the focus itself is not on raising scholarship money.
Tasha Cole, a senior official with the CBCF who oversees scholarships and charitable giving, says there was no record of funding from One Door to go either toward CBCF scholarships or tables at their conference dinners.
Marva Brown Johnson- who was with Bright House Networks at the time- says she paid for ALC attendance and tables through One Door, though. She says she was inspired by Brown to attend the conference, and ultimately the conference inspired future charitable interests and giving. Proosecutors have checks and invoices that show tens of thousands of dollars from Bright House to One Door to go toward various conference expenses.
Brown Johnson is one of a few donors who testified on Friday that they were aware that some of the money they were giving was not going to scholarships, and would instead be used on various expenses connected to putting on events. Bright House Network, for example, cut a $10,000 check to sponsor Brown’s golf tournament.
Another donor gave tens of thousands of dollars toward Brown’s reception at the annual ALC conference and the veteran’s even Brown also hosted that week. Richard Lipsky owns some hospital facilities that were working to open their doors to veterans who were struggling with the VA, and he admitted he believed Brown could help him with that process. In terms of the $20,000 from the hospitals and $5,000 personal check he cut to One Door, though, he knew that was to support various events with catering, entertainment, and other areas. In fact, put an additional $4,290 toward an event after getting a call from either Corrine Brown or her daughter Shantrel that something happened with a portion of a catering bill, asking for his help to cover it.
Some $90,000 was given by the Picerne Development Corporation to One Door- at least some in part to also host events. Director of Government Affairs Don Miller says the requests for funding from Brown and her staff to the head of the company, Bob Picerne, became so frequent that he actually tried to cut of communication at some point.
“I kind of felt like he was being taken advantage of,” Miller said.
Overall, even the donors who knew they were at least in part funding the expenses of running various events, they all also shared an expectation that excess funds, as well as their other contributions, would be going to scholarships.
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.
Prosecutors are building a money trail of deposits, withdrawals, and lavish spending allegedly benefiting former Congresswoman Corrine Brown and a few others, through the testimony of an FBI Special Agent.
But Brown’s defense says, at no time, did she have control of the account in question.
Deputy Chief of the Department of Justice Public Integrity Section Criminal Division Eric Olshan’s questioning of FBI Special Agent Vanessa Stelly spanned two days of Brown’s federal fraud trial. Stelly was assigned to this investigation as part of her work in the white collar crime division. She told the court she had worked through bank and business records for Brown, as well as the alleged “sham” charity One Door For Education, which Brown and a few others are accused of funneling money through.
Stelly confirmed that at no time was One Door registered in either Florida or Virginia- where it was incorporated as a business- to solicit charitable donations as a 501(c)(3) organization. One Door’s President, Carla Wiley, opened a bank account for the organization in 2011, but it closed about a year later because of a negative balance. Wiley opened another account with a $250 initial deposit, and there was no activity until August 2012, when Stelly says there was a $25,000 check deposited by a Political Action Committee based in Virginia. That PAC is backed by a lobbying firm where Brown’s daughter, Shantrel Brown, works. Corrine and Shantrel Brown share a home in Virginia.
One of the points that prosecutors are trying to hammer in is that there was a habit of using One Door donations for the personal expenses of Brown and a few others. To do that, Olshan first walked Stelly through repeated instances where bank records show hundreds of dollars at a time being taken from the One Door account at an ATM near the Laurel, MD home of Brown’s Chief of Staff Ronnie Simmons, with a like sum soon after deposited in one of Brown’s accounts- also in Laurel. Prosecutors further showed a surveillance photo of Simmons making at least one withdrawal and deposit. Prosecutors alleged Simmons would sometimes withdraw the cash and give it directly to Brown, and there was a surveillance photo of Brown herself making one deposit.
Brown’s attorney, James Smith III, jumped on the charted expenses though, pointing out with Stelly that only about $3,000 of the roughly $26,000 One Door Funds allegedly deposited in to Brown’s account are suspected to have been deposited by her, with the majority done by Simmons. As he works to show Simmons betrayed Brown’s trust, Smith guided Stelly through cross examination, where she confirmed Brown did not have access to the One Door account, did not have the debit card, and was not formally affiliated with the governance or running of the organization.
Another focus of the prosecution is a trip by Brown and her daughter to the Bahamas, and later Los Angeles. A July 2013 check for $3,000 from the One Door account made out to a specific Bank of America bank account said in the memo line that it was for children’s summer camps. Stelly says bank records show $3,000 being deposited around the same time in to Shantrel Brown’s bank account, and $1,000 being transferred from Shantrel Brown’s account to that of her mother. At the same time, Stelly says bank records show several cash withdrawals from One Door’s account in Simmons’ city of residence amounting to $3,000, the same sum which was then deposited in to Brown’s account as well. This all happened as Brown and her daughter first spent time at a resort in the Bahamas and then traveled to the Los Angeles-area, where they did a significant amount of shopping, according to Stelly’s analysis.
When Stelly’s testimony resumed Thursday, the focus turned to more than $330,000 in One Door funds that the US Attorney’s Office says funded events hosted by Brown or in Brown’s honor which didn’t actually result in any kind of scholarship fundraising.
There were several events Stelly says were represented as being paid for by another group, like Friends of Corrine Brown, but actually had at least some One Door dollars. Still other events were largely entirely funded by One Door, but prosecutors allege that’s not what the donations were intended for. They pulled out fliers for the events, which generally listed One Door as a sponsor or gave more detailed explanation of the organization. Smith questioned whether there were any documents that had been introduced as evidence which specifically said donations would only be going toward education scholarships, though, and Stelly said there were none. Smith further questioned whether Stelly could be sure there were no scholarships or opportunities created as a result of the networking done at these events. Stelly could only confirm One Door had not given out scholarships at the events or raised money for scholarships they would distribute. Olshan added that it was not Stelly’s job to investigate other charity and scholarship organizations.
GALLERY: One Door For Education’s website
A substantial amount of time was also spent on the Congresswoman Corrine Brown Invitational Golf Tournament which was advertised as sponsored by One Door to benefit a scholarship fund and other community non-profits. Stelly says $55,594.55 in One Door funds were used to put on the event. Among the expenses charged to One Door, though, are hotel nights for Brown in the days leading up to the event- at a hotel about five miles from her Jacksonville home- and several nights for her and a few others at a hotel near the golf tournament- about 25 miles from her home. The hotel nights alone added to a little more than $1,400.
Prosecutors also took the time to look at the charitable giving One Door touted on its website. In all, over about two years, Stelly says she found just $10,408 she identified as “possible charitable contributions”, which includes everything from $30 to the Town of Eatonville to $1,500 for the Jacksonville Men Who Cook Fundraiser.
WOKV is inside of the federal courthouse as the testimony in this trial continues. Check back frequently at wokv.com.
Was it corruption or betrayal?
There is a fundamental question that’s been brought to light through opening statements at the federal fraud trial of now-former Congresswoman Corrine Brown- exactly how much did she know about her personal finances and affairs. The question becomes central, as her defense paints the picture of a Chief of Staff in over his head and acting behind Brown’s back, while prosecutors say it would be impossible for her not to know about the source of the tens of thousands of dollars she was allegedly benefiting from.
CONTINUING COVERAGE: The trial of now-former Congresswoman Corrine Brown
Assistant US Attorney A. Tysen Duva started his argument talking about Brown being hailed as a trailblazer for her historic election in the 90s. He spoke about the committees she served in her more than two decades with the House of Representatives, and the reputation she built to deliver for her constituents.
“We wish that was the end of the story,” Duva said. “There’s another side- corruption, greed, and a significant entitlement attitude. That’s what this case is about. It’s about lying, cheating, and stealing.”
Duva says Brown leveraged her position and relationships she built as a Congresswoman to solicit money for a “bogus” charity “One Door for Education”, without ever telling donors the money wasn’t being used on scholarships and other things to help disadvantaged children. Instead, prosecutors say the money was being used for parties, travel, shopping trips, and more of Brown and a few others.
Duva says Brown’s Chief of Staff Ronnie Simmons would frequently drive to an ATM in his Virginia hometown and withdraw the maximum allowed in a day- $800- from the One Door account, then depositing a like sum in to one of Brown’s bank accounts or giving the cash to Brown directly.
“When we dug even further, we saw this was a way of life,” he says.
Duva says Brown was driven by finances- with three properties and a shopping habit.
“She simply spent way more than she took in, she became accustomed to this money coming in,” He says.
Brown would also throw “lavish” events using One Door funds, according to Duva, about $330,000 overall. The US Attorney’s Office says donations to the group funded a golf tournament at TPC Sawgrass, a luxury box at a Jaguars game in DC, a luxury box in a Beyonce concert, and more. The money would also allegedly be used for an event at an annual conference, which Duva called a party for Brown to “be celebrated”. No fundraising was done at these events, according to Duva.
In his opening statement, though, Brown’s attorney James Smith III said Brown was not responsible for event planning, travel, or even much of the day-to-day operations in her office- Simmons was, and the jury needs to decide if they can trust him.
“She trusted that he would always look out for her and care for her,” Smith says.
Smith says Brown first offered to be Simmons’ mentor after he and her daughter broke up, but remained friends. Simmons first worked in Brown’s travel agency, then eventually her campaign for the Florida House, then Congress. Smith says Brown looked at Simmons as a son, and was unaware that many thought he was in over his head. Rather, she trusted him to run her staff, keep her schedule, plan her travel and more. Simmons also had access to Brown’s bank accounts, according to Smith.
“As far as she knew, everything was running smoothly,” Smith says.
Smith says Simmons was always developing “schemes”, though, to fund the lifestyle he had become accustomed to. One such scheme involved getting a House of Representatives job for his sister by telling Brown she was sick and needed money. In reality, he says Simmons took much of the money over many years, and the relative didn’t do much work. So, when Simmons met and ultimately started having a relationship with Carla Wiley, the President of One Door, the opportunity for another scheme “fell in to his lap”.
“The two of them did that, on their own, without any encouragement or direction from Congresswoman Brown,” Smith says.
He says Brown solicited donations for a group she had every reason to believe was credible, because Simmons had vouched for it, and she trusted him. Even when Wiley ultimately took a plea deal, Simmons maintained his innocence, so Brown still had trust that he had done the right thing, according to Smith. Then, Simmons took a plea deal as well.
“She finally, finally had a chance to see clearly the betrayal that some in her inner circle feared,” Smith says.
Simmons and Wiley are both going to testify. Smith reminded the jurors that they will have to consider that testimony carefully, because of the plea deals Wiley and Simmons were given in exchange for their cooperation with the prosecution. He added that Brown herself will testify, because she can tell her story best, and he wants the jury to weigh Brown’s “well-earned reputation” against that of her two alleged co-conspirators.
And on the question of how Brown could have not known about the source of frequent large deposits in her accounts- the alleged One Door money Simmons would deposit- Smith says Brown traveled frequently for her work in Congress, and she would front the money and get reimbursed.
Prosecutors say that’s just not the case.
“The facts are going to show that Corrine Brown knew exactly what she was doing,” Duva said.
He adds that there are clearly established lies which will speak to that, including that Brown is also accused of underreporting her income and overreporting her charitable giving on House financial disclosures and tax returns.
If the One Door donors had known their money was not going to charitable education purposes, Duva says they wouldn’t have donated in the first place. He also says Brown using her influence and position as a Congresswoman was key toward soliciting the large donations- many ten thousand dollars or more.
Smith says Brown can only be convicted of fraud if she knowingly lied to the donors when she asked for the donations. He says she didn’t, though, and had instead been fooled by Simmons. Smith says Simmons fooled investigators and prosecutors too.
“Don’t let him fool you,” Smith said to the jury.
The courtroom itself was full for opening statements Wednesday, despite US Magistrate Judge Timothy Corrigan adding extra chairs in anticipation of a crowd. Those who did not secure a seat- which were first come, first served- were allowed in to an overflow room where there were audio and video feeds set up.
WOKV is inside of the federal courtroom and updating you frequently through the proceedings. This is a developing story that will be updated in to the evening.
The jury that will sit over the federal fraud trial of now-former Congresswoman Corrine Brown has been chosen.
Seven men and five women are on the panel. Four alternates have also been chosen- not two as the initial court order stated. The alternates will not be told they are alternates ahead of the trial, instead, they’ve been mixed in among the others and the group is sitting as a body of 16.
CONTINUING COVERAGE: The trial of now-former Congresswoman Corrine Brown
US Magistrate Judge James Klindt, who presided over the two-and-a-half day selection process, says they sat four alternates because of the anticipated length of the trial- at three weeks.
By the observation of our reporter in the courtroom, the 12 person panel appears to be three white females, five white males, two black females, one black male, and one Hispanic male. Nine of the jurors live in Jacksonville, one in Bunnell, one in Middleburg, and one couldn’t be determined by our reporter because it was not clearly stated by the juror.
The defense was allowed to make ten strikes “without cause” and the prosecution had six, but neither side used all of those strikes before agreeing on the panel.
US District Judge Timothy Corrigan- who is presiding over the trial- took the bench for the first time just ahead of 11:15AM Wednesday, had the jury sworn in, and then issued instructions to the panel.
The instructions included reinforcing that the jurors cannot speak to anyone about the case, and that none of the parties involved in the case should be approaching them through the trial itself. The jury will not be sequestered, but has been repeatedly instructed not to seek out any news reports about this case or discuss the case with anyone.
“Our whole system depends upon the fact that this case is decided in this courtroom on the evidence in this courtroom, and nothing else,” Corrigan told the jury.
Corrigan further started to explain the prosecution’s burden to prove “beyond a reasonable doubt”, and that there is no obligation on the defense to prove anything. Jurors will be given notepads and paper during the trial, but those are taken from them at the end of the day every day.
Juror 1- black male from Jacksonville, high school education, single and never married. He works in merchandising for a soda company. He served on a criminal jury in state court about ten years ago, and they were able to reach a verdict. This juror said he had some prior knowledge of this case from watching the news, but had no more details than the case statement delivered by Klindt and had not formed any opinion on guilty or innocence. Two of this juror’s cousins and two of his friends have been arrested- a cousin was arrested in the 1980s and did 27 years for drug possession, a cousin was locked up in the 1980s for a robbery, a friend was arrested for murder in 1993 and sentenced to life in prison, and another friend was arrested for molestation in the last five years. This juror says these cases wouldn’t influence him, because the people involved were guilty and he would be able to set those cases out of mind to focus on these proceedings.
Juror 2- white male from Jacksonville, high school education with some college, married with one 23-year-old child. He works in sales and his wife is a homemaker. He has been a juror on a criminal case in state court, and they did reach a verdict. This juror said he had met Brown once in the past when he got the chance to be in a luxury box his company owns, but that meeting does not influence how he views Brown.
Juror 3, who was identified in jury selection as Juror 9- black female from Jacksonville, associates degree, divorced with two children- a 4-year-old and a 9-year-old. She is recently unemployed, but previously worked as a registration analyst for a mortgage company and leasing agent at an apartment complex. This juror was a victim of a crime by her ex-husband, with the details of that crime being discussed during a private sidebar with the judge and attorneys.
Juror 4, who was identified in jury selection as Juror 12- white male from Bunnell, high school education, divorced with a 30-year-old son. He was a factory worker and previously served four years in the Army. This juror said he had some prior knowledge of this case based on a comment his sister-in-law made when he received a jury summons, but he had not otherwise paid attention to the case nor did he have an opinion about it. This juror’s brother was arrested in the 70s after drunkenly shooting up a man’s car in a retaliatory act, but he says that wouldn’t influence him because he didn’t follow the case closely since he was serving in Korea.
Juror 7, who was identified in jury selection as Juror 13- white male from Jacksonville, Bachelor’s degree in Communications, married. He is currently a hair stylist and his spouse is with an insurance group. This juror said he has some knowledge of the case because he watches the news nightly and he is active on social media, but he hasn’t formed an opinion on the case because he hasn’t looked in to it in depth.
Juror 8, who was identified in jury selection as Juror 17- white female from Jacksonville, high school education with some college, widow. She is a real estate property manager. She was a juror in a criminal case in state court in 2014, and they were able to reach a verdict.
Juror 9, who was identified in jury selection as Juror 19- black female from Jacksonville, Bachelor’s degree in Respiratory Science, married with one son. She served in the Navy for 21 years and her husband is retired Navy as well. She now works in the respiratory science field. This juror’s brother was tried and convicted of attempted manslaughter in the early 80s. She says her family doesn’t talk about it, so she hasn’t formed any opinions about it.
Juror 10, who was identified in jury selection as Juror 23- white female from Jacksonville, Bachelor’s degree in Business, married with three children. Her children as a 26-year-old waiter, a 23-year-old who works in a grocery store, and an 18-year-old graduating high school. She works in sales support for an insurance company and her husband grades essays for standardized tests. She served on a jury in a state criminal case in Indiana, and they were able to reach a verdict. This juror said she had some prior knowledge of the case because she reads the paper daily, but she stopped reading any articles about the case when she received her summons about a month ago. She did not have any opinion on the case.
Juror 13, who was identified in jury selection as Juror 26- white male from Middleburg, high school education with some college, married with three daughters- a paralegal, a waitress, and one who does financial work in the medical field. He is unemployed, but previously worked for a mortgage investor company. He has prior military experience of 13.5 years at Cecil Field.
Juror 14, who was identified in jury selection as Juror 35- white female from Jacksonville, high school education with some college, married with two kids- a 13-year-old and a 19-year-old college student. She is a service consultant for an insurance company and her spouse is self-employed in landscaping. This juror says she has some prior knowledge of the case, but only that she had heard on the news that there was a trial.
Juror 15, who was identified in jury selection as Juror 39- white male, Associates degree, single. Works for the Department of Transportation. This juror says he has some prior knowledge of the case from watching the news, but hadn’t heard many specifics. Friends had joked that he could potentially be on the jury, but it’s nothing that led him to form an opinion. This juror has a family member that worked for a county sheriff’s office, but that has no impact on how he views law enforcement.
Juror 16, who was identified in jury selection as Juror 40- Hispanic male from Jacksonville, Bachelor’s degree in Network Technology, married with three children- a 33-year-old case manager with DCF, a 31-year-old in the armed forces, and a 25-year-old in college. He works as a shift supervisor at a youth camp in Starke and his wife is a school teacher. He served 44 years in the military.
ALTERNATE JUROR DETAILS:
Juror 5, who was identified in jury selection as Juror 44- Hispanic male from Jacksonville, Bachelor’s in Communications, married with an 11-month-old daughter. He works as a Continuity Director with a media group and his wife owns a bed-and-breakfast. This juror says he knows one of the prospective witnesses, John Delaney, from having served as Vice President of UNF’s student government, but that was about seven years ago and it would not influence the weight and consideration he gave to Delaney’s testimony.
Juror 6, who was identified in jury selection as Juror 50- female of apparent East Asian descent from St. Johns County, high school education and some college, married with three children- one is a former Marine and current firefighter, one is a Marine, and one is a student. She has previously worked in account receivables, merchandising, and as a youth service worker. This juror says she has some prior knowledge of the case from watching the news daily, but she mostly consumes traffic and weather and had only heard generally about this trial. She has not formed any opinion and will weigh only the evidence presented at trial.
Juror 11, who was identified in jury selection as Juror 51- white male from Palm Coast, Masters in Business Administration, married with three children- ages 13, 11, and 6. He is a medical surgical rep and his wife is a homemaker. He served on a criminal jury in a case in Flagler County four years ago, and they reached a verdict.
Juror 12, who was identified in jury selection as Juror 52- black female from East Palatka, high school education with some college, divorced with one 41-year-old son who’s a bus driver in New York. She is a lab analyst. She has previously served on a jury on a state criminal, but the case settled. This juror says she has some prior knowledge of the case from seeing a little on the news, but she hasn’t discussed the case with anyone, nor has she formed an opinion. This juror answered affirmatively that she, a close friend, or family member had been arrested for a crime, but the specific details were discussed in a private sidebar with the judge and attorneys.
Almost ten months after she was first indicted on twenty-two federal charges, now-former Congresswoman Corrine Brown is officially going on trial.
Opening statements are Wednesday afternoon, following more than two days of vetting 95 prospective jurors to seat a twelve person jury with two alternates. With the estimated three week proceeding getting underway, WOKV is recapping how things got to this point.
Questions started circulating in January 2016, when Brown was served a federal subpoena, but the situation started coming to head in March 2016, when Carla Wiley pleaded guilty to conspiracy to commit wire fraud and agreed to cooperate with the prosecution as part of her plea agreement. Wiley was the head of “One Door For Education”, and the information filed against her in federal court says she and two others- one of who was a public official- represented that group as a charity to solicit and collect more than $800,000 in donations.
In reality, the US Attorney’s Office says One Door was never registered as a non-profit, and the donations were used instead for the personal expenses of the three co-conspirators and a few others.
In July 2016, Brown and her Chief of Staff Ronnie Simmons were jointly indicted- confirming them as Wiley’s alleged co-conspirators. In February 2017, Simmons pleaded guilty to two of the 19 charges he faced and also agreed to cooperate with the prosecution.
Federal court records say the trio used Brown’s position as a Congresswoman to aid their efforts to raise money for One Door. Simmons’ plea deal says Brown would often solicit the donations and then have Simmons recap and follow up with the donor. The deal also says Brown would frequently ask Simmons to have Wiley check the balance of the One Door account.
The US Attorney’s Office says there are tens of thousands of dollars that were withdrawn from the One Door account in ATMs where the city where Simmons lived, and then deposited in Brown’s account. About $140,000 was also allegedly transferred to Wiley’s account from One Door, and Simmons allegedly benefited from tens of thousands of dollars in checks as well.
Prosecutors say the money would go toward car repairs, travel and lodging, events hosted by Brown or held in Brown’s honor, among other things. Some of those events allegedly funded by One Door money included a golf tournament at TPC Sawgrass, a fundraiser in a luxury box at a Beyonce concert, a fundraiser in a luxury box at a Jaguars-Redskins NFL game in DC, and parties at an annual conference in DC. Court filings from prosecutors say the fundraisers and events did not actually raise any money or otherwise benefit any charity.
Throughout the time in question, prosecutors say there was only ever two scholarships paid by One Door- one for $1,000 to a person in Virginia in February 2013, and one for $200 to a person in Florida in June 2015.
Brown served in the House of Representatives for more than two decades, before losing a primary election in August 2016. She said then that the time and resources she had to dedicate to the federal case against her were a factor in her ability to focus on the election. She had also faced a newly re-drawn district that stretched from Jacksonville to the west, after her prior district which stretched from Jacksonville to Orlando was thrown out because of gerrymandering.
Before she was voted out of office, Brown also faced an investigation by the House Committee on Ethics, which formed an Investigative Subcommittee to look in to these allegations. That investigation had been put on hold, however, pending the federal law enforcement probe.
If convicted on all charges, Brown could get more than 350 years in prison. A jury must be unanimous to convict. She’s specifically charged with one count of conspiracy to commit mail and wire fraud, seven counts of aiding and abetting mail fraud, nine counts of aiding and abetting wire fraud, one count of scheme to conceal material facts, one count of corrupt endeavor to obstruct or impede the due administration of internal revenue law, and three counts of filing a false tax return.
The later charges against Brown deal with claims by the US Attorney’s Office that Brown underreported income she received from One Door and overreported the charitable contributions she was making.
Wiley- the first to plead- admitted to one count of conspiracy to commit wire fraud. She could be sentenced to 20 years in prison. Simmons pleaded guilty to one count of conspiracy to commit mail and wire fraud and one count of theft of government funds. He could get 20 years in prison for the conspiracy count, and 10 years for the theft.
Simmons faced the theft of government funds charge separate from Brown. He’s accused of helping a relative- who is a teacher living in Jacksonville- get a job with the House of Representatives an earning some $735,000 over about 15 years while doing little to no work. Simmons allegedly benefited about $80,000 from the revenue he helped his relative secure.
The jury is being specifically instructed to carefully consider the testimony of those who have taken plea deals- Simmon and Wiley- to consider that there testimony could be incentivized by the potential to receive a lighter penalty. They are also, however, being told not to negatively view a person solely for having taken a plea deal.
WOKV is in the courtroom as these proceedings continue. Our reporter Stephanie Brown will have updates on Twitter during court recesses and new stories posted frequently to WOKV.com.
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