JACKSONVILLE, Fla.- The fate of former Jacksonville area Congresswoman Corrine Brown is in the hands of a federal jury.
"There's no one right way to do it," Judge Timothy Corrigan told jurors.
"There is also no time limit." Corrigan said.
Monday morning, Corrine Brown's defense attorney James Smith began his closing argument with a photograph of three women: Corrine Brown, Carla Wiley and Monica Isom (sister of Brown’s former Chief of Staff Ronnie Simmons).
“What do all three of these women have in common?” Smith asked. “Ronnie Simmons gained the trust of each one of these women. Ronnie Simmons betrayed each one of these women. And Ronnie Simmons lied to protect himself.”
“He always targets people who trust him,” Smith added.
The former Congresswoman is charged in a 22 count indictment with fraud, corruption and tax counts.
In his hour-long closing argument, Smith painted Simmons as a grafter – “a liar and a thief” who seduced Wiley, exploited his own sister, and ultimately was a mastermind of the fraud that Brown stands accused of.
Noting that Simmons lied to Wiley, not telling her he’d taken One Door money to pay for a romantic Miami vacation, Smith asked, “If he could fool his lover, is it so outrageous to believe he could fool his boss?”
Smith suggested Simmons was depositing money into Brown’s bank account without her knowledge in order to plunder it later. “You’re left to wonder is he putting the [cash] money back into her account. Why? Because he’s in control of her account.”
Smith told jurors it was Simmons, not Brown, who was singularly focused on collecting checks and chasing donors. “Why was he so desperate for those checks?” he asked. The answer, he said, was that Simmons was operating “a circular theft.”
“What did he always do with the checks? He wanted them to be sent to his home,” Smith observed. “Why? Because he had to hide it from her.”
Smith offered no direct evidence of this, and did not pursue it during testimony, when he might have asked Simmons about it. Instead, Smith faulted prosecutors for failing to look for alternate explanations.
“Building a case is not the same thing as a search for the truth,” Smith told jurors. “If you believe something, you can find anything to confirm it.” Prosecutors, he claimed, “have blinders on.”
Portraying Brown as an increasingly dependent, aging woman, Smith said she relied on Simmons and trusted his word. “It’s not polite to mention someone’s age. But you are dealing with a woman who was moving into her mid ‘60s. As she sits here today she’s a 70-year-old woman,” Smith told the jury.
Prosecutors claim Simmons and One Door represent just a portion of the fraud Brown engaged in, which they say also involved years of unexplained cash donations and illegitimate tax exemptions. Smith worked to make Simmons – “her lying, thieving chief of staff” -- the center of the case.
“Ronnie Simmons’ handwriting is literally all over this case,” he told jurors, referencing his signature on checks and tax returns. “It shows the extent to which the Congresswoman had essentially delegated her affairs and her life to Ronnie.”
As the years went on, she relied more and more on her staff. “When Ronnie asked her to do something she did it why? Because he would never lie to her. She trusted him.”
“There’s nothing wrong or illegal about having nice parties and receptions,” he told jurors. “It is not a crime to have an event and not raise money.”
But Smith said prosecutors did, turning Brown’s political signature against prosecutors, he said, “They failed to deliver.”
‘If Ronnie Simmons is someone you can’t trust, you cant trust the government’s case,” Smith said.
Court took a short break until 12:15 and will resume for the prosecution’s rebuttal and jury instructions, before breaking for lunch.
Jury deliberations will begin after lunch.