Facing nearly two dozen federal fraud and conspiracy charges, former U.S. Rep. Corrine Brown took the stand in her own defense on Thursday, saying she was left in the dark while her former chief of staff siphoned thousands of dollars from what prosecutors are calling a sham charity.
The Florida Democrat told the jury she was betrayed by her former top aide, Elias “Ronnie” Simmons.
“I loved Ronnie Simmons like a son,” said Brown, crying. “A lot of young people in this community end up in jail. I never would’ve wanted that to happen to Ronnie.”
Federal prosecutors want Brown to go to jail for a scheme to raise more than $800,000 for the One Door for Education Foundation, which promised that the money would go to help poor kids with scholarships and computers. Instead, the charity gave only $1,200 out in scholarships while Brown, Simmons and the foundation’s president Carla Wiley spent funds on a lavish lifestyle, according to their indictments.
Brown also is charged with lying on her taxes about charitable donations the government said she never made, and falsifying her congressional financial disclosure forms.
Her attorney, James Smith, asked Brown if she has lived a fancy life, or was a “money-spending machine.”
“Some people play golf. Some people play basketball. I like shopping,” Brown said. “Where do I like shopping? The Dollar Store,” Brown said, eliciting chuckles from the courtroom.
Simmons, who has pleaded guilty to two related charges, testified that Brown ordered him to take money from One Door’s accounts and deposit it into her personal bank account. He said he also forged checks from the charity but left the amount blank and gave them to Brown in her office, also on her orders.
Prosecutors say Brown would write the One Door checks out to the business of another staffer, Von Alexander, who owned a public relations agency. Alexander testified that she would deposit the checks into her agency’s account, then write checks out to cash as instructed by Brown. Alexander said she then deposited that cash into Brown’s personal account.
Prosecutors presented evidence that One Door funds were used to finance numerous expensive events, including a luxury box at an NFL game, a Beyoncé concert and a golf tournament at TPC Sawgrass in Florida. Brown was at all of the events, and her name was used on materials promoting them as benefits for One Door.
Despite this evidence, she said she didn’t know that One Door money going directly into her account.
“How could you not know about thousands of dollars going into your bank account?” her attorney asked.
“I wish I could answer that. I wish I paid closer attention to my finances. I was always busy working on things for my constituents,” Brown said.
Brown, 70, represented the Jacksonville congressional district since 1993. She lost re-election after she was indicted last year. On the stand, she said she didn’t know about the scheme until after the indictment was filed, and that her only mistake was being too trusting of Simmons, and perhaps too laissez-faire about her personal finances.
“I got so busy … that I wasn’t taking care of Corrine’s business,” she said. “I made mistakes — not paying close attention, and not taking care of me.”
Assistant U.S. Attorney A. Tysen Duva pointed out in cross-examination that being a member of Congress is a demanding job that requires high intelligence — the opposite portrait Brown sought to portray of herself on Thursday.
Duva pointed out that Brown had mastered the intricacies of the complicated federal budget process, and been successful over her decades in office in winning money and jobs for her district.
“You had a slogan. What was the slogan?” Duva asked Brown.
“Corrine Delivers,” she responded.
Republished with permission of The Associated Press.