During cross-examination Wednesday afternoon, Corrine Brown’s former chief of staff said he felt pressured by the prosecution to change his plea.
Ronnie Simmons, charged alongside Brown in a 24-count indictment handed down in the middle of last year, told the court prosecutors were threatening to go after his sister and Shantrel Brown, the congresswoman’s daughter, if he didn’t cooperate.
Francis Simmons was Ronnie’s sister and a ghost employee of the congresswoman’s office for 10 years. She received $735,000 in that time despite doing practically no work for the office. She was not indicted, but Ronnie was charged with abetting theft of government fund. He pled guilty to that charge in his plea deal.
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.
Corrine would regularly be given reimbursements from the One Door account for money she said she put forward for various events – like a children’s summer camp or a charitable donation. Ronnie told the court those events never happened.
He also testified the way Corrine went about getting reimbursements was unorthodox. Corrine would have a check written to cash from either a campaign account or One Door, give it to longtime staffer Von Alexander, have her cash it and deposit it into Corrine’s account.
Ronnie also told the court that every event held – and all $330,000 spent on them to benefit the bogus charity – had a return on investment of $0. Ronnie offered up that the events ended up in the hole and didn’t have any excess funds to give to the charity.
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.’
Duva told the judge there are only three more witnesses, including representatives from two local churches: Destiny Baptist and Bethel Baptist. An IRS Criminal Investigator is also up tomorrow. Their combined testimony is expected to take just an hour.
Testimony will resume around 9:45 a.m. due to a meeting the prosecution and the defense wish to have with the judge in the case Thursday morning.
The defense believes they'll call Reginald Gaffney and Stanley Twiggs of the CRC tomorrow morning after the government wraps up its case.