Below is a collection of reporting on the Corrine Brown trial, edited for length and clarity, to give a semi-quick primer and everything that happened at trial.
Important players are outlined below for your convenience:
Former U.S. Rep. Corrine Brown: the accused in the case.
James Smith: Brown's defense lawyer.
A. Tysen Duva: Assistant U.S. Attorney - lead prosecutor.
Ronnie Simmons: Brown's chief of staff in congress for the last 23 years.
Carla Wiley: President of fraudulent charity One Door For Education.
One Door For Education: a bogus charity Brown is accused of using as a personal slush fund.
The afternoon of April 26 - opening statements by the defense and the prosecution
James Smith, Brown's defense attorney, cautioned the jury on believing testimony from people who have cut a plea deal and admitted they lied, cheated and stole, which is what both Wiley and Simmons are accused of and have admitted to.
“[Simmons] fooled [the congresswoman], the donors of One Door, and fooled the prosecutors who have based their case on his testimony,” Smith told the jury. “Don’t let him fool you.”
Smith painted Brown as a hardworking congresswoman, and beholden to her constituents. He said everything she did during her time in Congress was to help the people from her district and that all other tasks, from the most menial like gassing up her car to more important like planning events, was handled by Simmons and other staffers.
Duva argued in his opening statement that Simmons worked under Brown and did her bidding - that included taking out $800 a day from the One Door bank account and depositing it regularly into the congresswoman’s bank account.
Smith said Brown didn’t notice the changes in her bank account; she wasn’t computer savvy and couldn’t look it up online - all of that was handled by her chief of staff.
He told the jury they’d have to decide two questions: who is Ronnie Simmons and could they trust him?
The government says Simmons came clean about the money he had been taking along with Brown. Duva outlined a scenario when Brown and her daughter took a trip to Nassau, Bahamas and stayed at the Atlantis Hotel, then flew to Beverly Hills and shopped along Rodeo Drive. Every day during this trip, Duva said the government has documentation showing Simmons continue to make deposits into her bank account.
Duva also brought up Von Alexander, who ran an organization in Jacksonville that Brown would also allegedly funnel money through.
Brown committed wire fraud, mail fraud and stole money from the government by lying on her tax forms, Duva argued. He told the jury at the close of his opening statement that they’d see clearly at the end of witness testimony that Brown was running a well-oiled machine; that everyone was playing their role.
“That’s why it lasted as long as it did,” Duva told the jury, referring to the fraud scheme revolving around One Door. Brown is accused of helping raise over $800,000 for the scholarship charity and only ever giving out $1,200 in scholarships over the course of four years.
The morning of April 27 - FBI Special Agent Vanessa Stelly | Called by the prosecution
After detailing the money One Door spent on events thrown by Brown’s office, FBI Special Agent in Charge Vanessa Stelly told the court about how Carla Wiley, the bogus charity’s president, would simply wire transfer money from the company’s account to her own.
Then Stelly walked the court through a summary of scholarship and educational payouts of One Door since its inception until it became defunct. The largest donation was to a fundraiser called ‘Jacksonville Men Who Cook’ - $1,500. The smallest donation was for $26 to Virginia Leadership Institute. One Door For Education gave $30 to the Town of Eatonville, one of the first all-black towns in America.
In all, One Door For Education gave $10,408 over its lifetime - about two and a half years. It raised well over $800,000.
The prosecution then had Stelly explain several instances where One Door funds were used for things utterly unrelated to fundraising or scholarships, including $4,000 for various car bills, over $2,000 for a trip for Simmons and Carla to Miami, and chauffeur rides for Brown totalling more than $2,000. Several plane tickets were also bought by One Door to the tune of over $7,500.
Among other things One Door funds went to:
- $5,000 to Onyx magazine for Brown’s cover spread
- 2012 city council campaign in District of Columbia
- $2,000 to the IRS on Brown’s behalf
- Airfare for Shantrel to travel to Montgomery, Alabama
James Smith, Brown’s attorney, began cross-examination of Special Agent Stelly. He made a point of dragging Stelly back over her testimony to say Brown had no direct access to the funds of One Door and was only affiliated in a perfunctory way.
The morning of April 27 - Mike Ward, philanthropist and former CSX CEO | Called by the prosecution
Next up was Mike Ward, former CSX CEO who’s been with the company the last 40 years. Due to Brown’s presence on the transportation railroad subcommittee in the House, Ward often spoke to Brown about various political issues.
Over a few years, Ward contributed $35,000 to One Door For Education after Brown told him directly the money would be used to reward well-performing students with iPads. Ward told the court he believed in charitable giving to two causes: education and the prevention of domestic violence.
$10,000 of the total sum he gave was to send children to China for an educational exchange trip. He also testified he gave $5,000 to Brown for an uncertain reason - but One Door For Education ended up on the payline for the check.
When the prosecution asked if he’d have donated that money if he knew it was going to Brown’s bank account, he replied absolutely not.
The afternoon of April 27 - Gasper Lazarra, orthodondist and well-known philanthropist | Called by the prosecution
Lazzara has known Brown for a little over 16 years. He told the court she’s been over to his home many times since they’ve known each other, and unlike most previous witnesses, he said he spoke mainly with the former congresswoman - not her chief of staff.
He gave many, many thousands of dollars to Brown over the last several years. He told the court it was mostly for charitable organizations - he pointed to donations for Edward Waters College - and One Door For Education. Lazzara told the court he liked giving for educational purposes.
Lazzara’s daughter also did some digging on One Door and found out, well before there was a case brought against Carla Wiley, the president of One Door, that the charity was a not a registered 501(c)(3). She told her father, who can’t recall if he told the former congresswoman.
“I believe my daughter told Ronnie,” he told the court. When pressed by the defense he doubled down: Jessica Lazzara-Wynne told Simmons the charity was bogus.
The morning of April 28 - Jack Hanania, car dealership owner | Called by the prosecution
Jack Hanania of Hanania Automotive Group in Jacksonville and Chattanooga, Tennessee took the stand. Hanania went to a Jaguars-Redskins NFL game in September 2014 with Brown, another U.S. congressman and Florida Gov. Rick Scott.
He told the court Brown would often solicit him to donate to her campaign, but he never gave. In 2014, she brought up One Door For Education and asked for $12,000 - $14,000. He gave $7,000.
Hanania told the court he traveled in a private jet with his wife, children and the former congresswoman up to D.C. to watch the game. After the game, his family flew back on the plane without Brown. He said he didn’t have to pay anything for the trip because the owner of the jet paid for it.
The morning of April 28 - Tasha Cole, Vice President of the Congressional Black Caucus Foundation | Called by the prosecution
Tasha Cole, vice president for the Congressional Black Caucus Foundation testified that their organization gives many thousands of dollars in scholarships throughout the country to students.
The prosecution asked her if the foundation ever received any funds from One Door.
“According to our records, no,” she told the court.
The prosecution brought up Brown’s receptions that would commonly be held around the same time as the foundation’s Annual Legislative Conference and drew no formal line between the two events.
“Individuals may attend an event held by Congresswoman Corrine Brown and then go to some official activities the next day, correct?” Smith asked the witness.
She said she didn’t know for sure if Brown’s receptions had led people to attend the CBC events, but knew it happens.
The afternoon of April 28 - Don Miller, employee of developer Bob Picerne | Called by the prosecution
Don Miller took the stand and told the court twenty minutes into his testimony that he believed his boss, Bob Picerne, who was close friends with the congresswoman, was being taken advantage of.
The congresswoman or her chief of staff Ronnie Simmons would simply need to call up Miller or Picerne every now and then, ask for money, and generally receive it, Miller told the court.
Miller added it took almost a year for him to learn from anyone that One Door was a charity giving out scholarships. Brown only told him it was a non-profit, he said.
When Miller stopped responding to Simmons and Brown because he believed they were asking for too much money, they began going directly to his boss and kept getting funds. Picerne funded some of Brown's receptions, part of the Jags-Redskins game referenced earlier in the day, and the golf tournament.
The morning of May 1 - Carla Wiley, President of One Door For Education | Called by the prosecution
“Fear.” That, Carla Wiley told jurors, is why she initially lied to investigators probing her fake charity, One Door for Education.
“I felt if I lied and got them to leave the office, that it was all going to go away.”
It did not, and Monday’s testimony was the culmination of Wiley’s nearly two years of cooperation with federal prosecutors in their case against former Congresswoman Corrine Brown.
Wiley was the founder of One Door for Education, an allegedly bogus charity that federal prosecutors say was used to funnel $800,000 to the former Congresswoman and her chief of staff, Ronnie Simmons
Wiley testified that she committed a large scale, years-long fraud, along with Brown and Simmons. She told jurors she agreed to re-start a nonprofit she’d opened in her mother’s honor, after Simmons – her then boyfriend – said he needed a charity to host an event for the Congresswoman.
The fraud fell apart, she told jurors, in early 2015, when she was part of a 4-way phone call with Brown, Simmons and Brown’s daughter Shantrel. According to Wiley, the other three had already been contacted by the FBI and told her to expect a visit. Wiley says she was told to get the agent’s business card, and not to speak. The following day, two agents showed up at her Virginia office and questioned her for 2 hours. “It seemed like forever.”
The afternoon of May 1 - Voncier Alexander, longtime staffer to the former congresswoman | Called by the prosecution
Corrine Brown’s friend and former employee Voncier Alexander took the stand late and testified about a series of financial transactions she managed. Though the transactions had different amounts, dates, and check memos, they followed a pattern – checks from with One Door, deposited into Alexander’s business account, followed by cash withdrawals in similar amounts, and deposits into Brown’s bank account.
Alexander said the deposits were “reimbursements” for expenses incurred by Brown, but testified she almost never saw any proof of those expenditures. She said she would notify Brown aid Ronnie Simmons that documentation was needed, but saw it “very rarely."
Alexander did not question the transactions. “Congresswoman told me that’s money she put out, and she would always want her money back.” Asked if she ever said no when Brown told her to make a deposit, Alexander chuckled and said no. “It was a directive.”
“I was not in a position to say no,” a longtime Jacksonville staffer for Brown told the federal court after being asked why she continued depositing checks into the congresswoman’s account from a charity called One Door For Education for several years.
The morning of May 2 - Kimberly Henderson, FBI Forensic Accountant | Called by the prosecution
FBI Forensic Accountant Kimberly Henderson testified that One Door For Education contributed the most money to Brown's bank accounts over the course of 2012 - 2015, Henderson testified.
Also on the list: public relations firm The Alexander Agency, the Friends of Corrine Brown campaign account and Reginald Gaffney through his various businesses. Gaffney is a Jacksonville city councilman who has known Brown for a long time.
Henderson testified that through various not-for-profits and for-profit companies started by Gaffney, Brown and her daughter Shantrel received and split $15,400 in cash.
The Alexander Agency, headed by Voncier Alexander, a part-time staff member since 2003, gave Brown and her daughter $11,500 over four years.
One Door For Education, the bogus charity at the heart of the trial, gave the pair $35,410.
Without these cash deposits, Brown's accounts would have seen numerous overdraws from 2012 - 2015, Henderson told the court.
"There would have been numerous significant overdraws [without the thousands of dollars in cash deposits each month]?" the prosecution asked Henderson.
"Yes," she replied.
According to a chart Henderson created, without the extra money coming in, Brown's accounts would have been thousands of dollars in the negative each month. In one four month span from January to May 2009, each month would have seen her account overdrawn about $9,000.
"At times, it is perfectly normal to have cash deposits it your account," she explained to the jury, "so it was our job to find odd deposits."
She said some of the cash deposits were coming from family to pay mortgage payments and added it was for her discern which cash deposits were legitimate and which were questionable.
The afternoon of May 2 - Dawn Wright, Brown's CPA | Called by the prosecution
Brown’s tax returns reported annual cash contributions to charities as high as $30,000, about 20 percent to a third of her declared income. In many cases, she presented no documentation for her claimed contributions. Among those charities she routinely claimed to support, without documentation, were Clara White Mission, One Door for Education, Bethel Baptist Church, Community Rehabilitation Center, New Destiny Christian Center.
Asked why she filed the returns without documentation, Wright said that while CPAs prefer receipts, they are allowed to rely on verbal assurances from clients, since they themselves are not authoring or signing the returns. Over the years she filed Brown’s returns, Wright grew accustomed to not having the required paperwork.
“We were not starting not to get documentation as the years progressed,” Wright testified.
She added that she was comfortable relying on Brown’s verbal confirmation, however, because she was typically facing a looming deadline and needed to file the returns quickly. Asked if she trusted Brown, Wright said “yes.”
Wright’s email exchanges with Brown’s staff show she did try to obtain the proper paperwork, however. Wright sometimes made notes on Brown’s stated list of donations, showing which ones had receipts and which did not. In 2014, a list annotated with check marks was signed by Corrine Brown.
On cross examination, Brown’s attorney James Smith attempted to show Brown as a distracted and scattered client, comparing her to clients who show up on tax day with a shoebox pleading for help.
The morning of May 2 - Carolyn Chatman, longtime volunteer staffer to Brown | Called by the prosecution
The prosecution brought five nearly identical letters - two which were sent to the CPA preparing the congresswoman's taxes - to Caroyln Chatman's attention.
The date is the same on several letters - August 17, 2011. Chatman testifies that she doesn't remember where she got letters.
All five letters have different explanations for an alleged $10,000 donation to CRC. First letter (rejected by CPA) claimed a time donation; a second letter (accepted) claimed furniture, clothes and other items.
The third letter also mentions time contribution. The fourth letter doesn't have a signature. The fifth letter has a blank version without any money written on it.
All were signed by Reggie Gaffney, the executive director of CRC and a current Jacksonville city councilman.
When asked why she had unsigned letter from Gaffney in the congresswoman's congressional office in Jacksonville, she told the court she didn't know.
"Do you know why you have a blank version in your files?" the prosecution asked.
"I don't know," Chatman said.
"Anyone ask you to write letters from CRC?"
"No," she said.
Chatman also explained that she was told not to file an amended tax return with the IRS by the congresswoman. She provided no reason, but the prosecution pointed to the $2,100 she would have had to pay back to the IRS if she filed it.
Also found in Brown's Jacksonville office was a piece of paper with a sentence allegedly from Edward Waters College thanking the congresswoman for a donation.
"Do you recall if the congresswoman gave this to you?" the prosecution asked.
"I don't recall," Chatman answered.
The morning of May 3 - Ronnie Simmons, former chief of staff | Called by the prosecution
Ronnie and Corrine presented a united front for the eight months after they were indicted, but Ronnie changed his plea in February and agreed to testify against his boss of the last 30 years. He told the court he read every piece of the evidence in the case over the last 15 months and decided to “get it over with.”
“Just the right thing to do; tell the truth,” he said.
“Did you plead guilty because you are guilty?” asked prosecutor A. Tysen Duva.
“Yes,” came Simmons’ reply.
Duva asked Ronnie a series of questions that made it clear the prosecution could still go after Shantrel or Francis.
Ronnie testified that he found One Door For Education, the bogus charity at the core of this trial, while out boating with Carla Wiley, the fund’s president, and a few friends. Every September, Corrine’s office threw a reception during the Congressional Black Caucus’ Annual Legislative Conference. He said he needed a nonprofit to fund the event.
Wiley offered up One Door as a scholarship fund for children that could fund the event. Ronnie said he jumped at the opportunity because he could control One Door. And he did: he was in charge of the account soon after Wiley gave him the check books and the debit card. He didn’t do anything without the congresswoman’s direction, though.
While the charity was ostensibly for giving children scholarships, Ronnie said he found out later it actually only gave out $1,200 to deserving students from 2012 – 2015.
In that same time the fake charity raked in $833,000. A good chunk of that money found its way into Corrine’s, Ronnie’s, Wiley’s or other staffers’ bank accounts. $330,000 went to various events all related to the former congresswoman, including a golf tournament, Beyonce concert, NFL game, inauguration bus trip and several receptions.
Near the end of Ronnie’s testimony, both James Smith of the defense counsel and Duva focused on his plea agreement. While no promises were made not to go after Shantrel or Francis, Ronnie told Smith he hopes they won’t. He also told Smith that the part of his plea agreement says the prosecution will recommend the judge to go easy on him if his testimony is ‘significant.’
The morning of May 4 - Shawn Batsch, IRS Criminal Investigator | Called by the prosecution
James Smith, Brown’s attorney, tried to poke holes in Batsch’s phrase accusing Brown of ‘a lot of shopping.’ Batsch told the court he’d looked at many, many bank statements in his 16 years of being an IRS criminal investigator and that Brown shopped more than the vast majority of others he'd seen.
Batsch was asked if he made any assumptions, but insisted he looked at reported figures on her tax returns and her bank account – “there are no assumptions there,” he said.
The defense also asked if he knew if anyone else was using the congresswoman’s bank card.
“There’s no evidence of that,” he said.
“Is that anyone way of saying ‘I don’t know?’” Smith persisted.
“Okay, I don’t know,” Batsch said flatly.
Smith also went back to Batsch’s chart showing cash deposits into her account. He asked why there was no column explaining who made the deposits. Batsch said it didn’t matter – those deposits were received by the congresswoman and thus should have been declared on her taxes as income.
Gifts or loans would not be included as income, however, Batsch said.
“It doesn’t matter who’s putting money into her account,” he said, “if she’s using it, it’s income.”
“Unless it’s exempt,” Smith corrected.
“Unless it’s exempt,” Batsch agreed.
Upon redirect questioning, Assistant U.S. Attorney A. Tysen Duva asked if Brown could have afforded all her shopping without the deposits.
“It’s not a continuous line of credit,” Batsch said of her bank account.
Duva also asked if Batsch had ever seen people give thousands in loans to people without a contract or something indicating someone would pay it back.
There was a brief pause in testimony as the lawyers for both sides argued over admitting government’s exhibit 1XXX – a legend for Brown’s indictment explaining all the names and references. The indictment includes references to people like ‘Person A’ – which, according to the legend is a longtime Brown staffer Voncier Alexander. The judge told the jury he was allowing it into evidence to help them with their deliberation.
The morning of May 4 - Retired consultant Brenda Simmons-Hutchins | Called by the defense
Brenda Simmons-Hutchins told the court she knew Brown in high school and then reconnected while working at Florida State College at Jacksonville while Simmons-Hutchins was a English teacher and Brown counseled students.
Simmons-Hutchins said the also pair worked to introduce middle school students to college as a viable option after high school.
She explained that both the congresswoman and herself worked with the Jacksonville LINKS chapter. She said it was as community organization working with young children, particularly girls, and giving them academic enrichment and cultural activities.
LINKS worked with Brown and member Ingrid Burch, who already testified for the prosecution, to get a group of young children laptop computers. They were refurbished computers from the Duval County Public School Board.
The computers were given to students at an end of the year presentation. The young girls were called up one by one and given their computers.
“I’m still smiling because I can remember the smiles on all their faces,” Simmons-Hutchins told the jury.
The afternoon of May 4 - Corrine Brown, former U.S. congresswoman | Called by the defense
"Some witnesses describe you as a spending machine - shopping all day," Smith said well over an hour into direct examination of the former congresswoman.
"Everybody that I know, knows I'm a workaholic - that's what they know about me - a workaholic," she indignantly said to the jury. "I work from early in the morning to late at night and if, on the way home, I stop by the drugstore or on the weekend I go to Sam's Club I'm buying items for my mother." She became emotional.
Smith asked what she thought of Simmons when she first met him 30 years ago.
"I like him," she said. "A nice young man."
She added that he worked for her part-time at a travel agency she owned and then worked as a staffer in the state house.
After he led her campaign to victory, Simmons took on the role of her chief of staff. He ran her office until she lost the 2016 election - 23 years later.
"Why trust Ronnie Simmons?" Smith asked her after she admitted to hiring him even though he didn't have any experience running a congressional office.
"Well, I - I wanted to groom him," she replied. "I saw potential and I thought he could do the job and I wanted to give the young man a chance."
Over the years, she told the jury Simmons took on a larger and larger role in her office. Already working from 9 until 8 in the evening, she said her day got even longer and she had even less time to manage her office when she became the ranking Democrat on the Veterans Affairs House Committee. So she delegated more to her staffers, especially Simmons.
"I say when you're born you get a birth certificate and when you die you get a death certificate," she said. "And in between you get what you've done to make this a better place. The only thing you have in your life - you have your name, your reputation. My reputation means everything to me."
She continued to place the blame for the missing funds from the One Door account on Simmons, saying that he lied to her despite her trust in him.
"Was trusting Ronnie Simmons maybe the biggest mistake of your life?" Smith asked evenly.
"Yes," the congresswoman replied. "Yes, but I've got to take the responsibility, I should have been more attuned to what was going on around me."
She told the court she believed Simmons was paying for the events they held with his personal money and seeking reimbursements; she said when Simmons handed her stacks of cash she believed it was him getting her travel reimbursement; she said she had no idea Simmons pocketed thousands upon thousands of dollars.
"You're accused of lying to people you know for some years to get money to a charity you knew was phony, lying on your taxes and conspiring to commit those crimes - did you do it?" Smith asked.
"No sir," she replied. "I really believe that in life you do the very best you can to help other people. The idea that I would plot, steal; it's just not possible. That's not who I am."
Duva finished Thursday testimony by questioning the former congresswoman's alleged donations to various Jacksonville churches. Earlier on Thursday, representatives from New Destiny Christian Church and Bethel Baptist Church showed internal documents contradicting Brown's tax filing. In one case, it appeared Brown inflated her giving by $3,000.
Brown suggested that she would regularly donate at church anonymously and therefore that information wouldn't show up in church records.
Duva then asked why her 2015 tax return had her financial information correct while there were issues with her returns from 2008 - 2014.
She told the court she found a new tax person who could file her returns correctly.
"You just never had that before?" Duva asked, skeptical.
"Well, clearly I did not," Brown answered indignantly.
The morning of May 5 - Corrine Brown retakes the stand | Called by defense
A little before noon, Duva asked why One Door funds were making their way into her account from her chief of staff. He said it was for his reimbursements, she told the court.
"So he was getting reimbursements and then, on his own, he put that money into your account?" Duva asked.
Brown told the jury she couldn't say why he did that.
Duva brought up a short while later that she told James Smith, her defense attorney, that the federal case has caused her to be more careful with her taxes moving forward.
"Wouldn't an audit do that?" he questioned, referring to a 2010 audit of the former congresswoman's tax return.
The questioning quickly grew cantankerous, with the pair talking over each other several times until Duva moved on.
Brown never wavered during her testimony. She categorically and flatly denied any accusation that she did anything wrong. She pointed again and again to her 'sloppy bookkeeping' but did say the incorrect tax returns were because she did not keep on top of her information.
More than one time she actually got Duva to answer a question. "I know you're supposed to be asking the questions," she said.
During questioning about $4,000 she received from Lapool and Community Rehabilitation Center, organizations tied to Jacksonville City Councilman Reginald Gaffney, Brown said the prosecution talked to Gaffney about it.
"What did he tell you?" she asked.
By the end of her questioning, Duva asked how so much of that money deposited into her account from 2012 - 2015 could just be considered gifts or loan repayments from staffers.
"Sometimes I have Christmases, birthdays - I had boyfriends," she said to an outbreak of laughter in the gallery. The judge calmed them down and Duva ended his questioning.
"You knew your reputation was on the line?" Smith asked.
"Yes, it's been destroyed," she said slowly.
"Why did you trust Ronnie so much?"
"He was my boy, my mentee... I had lots of boys I worked with: I was so proud... he was someone I felt that had gotten out of here," she explained, referring to Jacksonville.
Brown choked back tears as she spoke of the great man she'd thought Simmons had become. "I never thought Ronnie was stealing - I always thought it was his money, his reimbursement," she said.
"Did you commit any of these crimes you're charged with?" was Smith's last question.
"Absolutely not," she said.
Duva then stood for another round of questioning. He pointed out she never fired Simmons even after the day they were both indicted. He wanted to know why she didn't fire him.
"Why would I?" she asked. Then she pointed out that at the time she didn't think he was guilty.
Simmons pleaded guilty in February to two counts of the 24-count indictment and agreed to testify against her.
The last question of her testimony on the stand focused on if she'd ever taken a picture with a scholarships recipient of One Door.
"I don't know," she said.
After that, the defense rested. For Tuesday afternoon coverage of verdict watch, head to this link.