UPDATE: Ronnie Simmons took the stand Wednesday morning. Click the link below to learn more about his testimony.
JACKSONVILLE, Fla.—Elias 'Ronnie' Simmons first met Corrine Brown while he was attending the University of Florida. He was dating the future U.S. Rep.’s daughter, Shantrel, at the time. Brown’s defense attorney said she saw a spark in the young man. An indescribable quality.
After graduating with a degree in agriculture, he went to work for Brown at a business startup in the city he went to high school: Jacksonville. He’d serve as a staffer for Brown when she was in the Florida House of Representatives.
When she was elected to the U.S. House in 1992 representing Florida’s third district, he became her chief of staff. Everything that Simmons has become is thanks to the congresswoman – and an undeniable knack to get people to like him. Simmons survived 24 years on Capitol Hill.
And, if a federal indictment handed down last July is true, he also helped create and maintain a web of lies and fraud that enriched Brown’s inner circle by the hundreds of thousands for years.
Until it all came crumbling down.
Federal investigators began questioning those close to the congresswoman – including Brown and Simmons – in early 2016. The FBI had questions related to Brown’s charitable contributions and involvement with an alleged charity called One Door For Education.
Except One Door was never a charity – and never registered as such, per investigators. But Brown, with either Simmons’ help or direction, helped rake in $800,000 for a charity no one had ever heard of over just four years
When the indictment charging both Simmons and Brown was handed down in July 2016, it seemed their loyalty to each other was as stalwart as ever. Brown trusted Simmons enough to charge a man with a bachelor’s in agriculture to run the office of one of the most powerful people in government. They presented a united front every time they appeared at court together. They were named in the same indictment – charged with many of the same crimes and both pleaded not guilty.
Simmons faced a separate charge of paying a close relative $735,000 over ten years to do pretty much no work as a staffer in Brown’s office. This relative was a teacher in Jacksonville. He got $80,000 – and he used it to pay off some of his credit card debt and get a boat loan, per the indictment.
If you believe Brown’s defense, Simmons did a lot more than that: he took advantage of an old woman (Brown is 70) to sate his thirst for boating trips and a lavish lifestyle. James Smith, Brown’s attorney, painted Simmons as a mastermind during his opening arguments at trial, using his guile and trust with congresswoman to use her to solicit donations from the rich and powerful before taking that money for himself.
In February of this year, Simmons changed his plea. Facing down 18 charges stemming from an investigation where bank records, tax records, emails and texts were subpoenaed by a team of FBI and IRS investigators, Simmons agreed to testify against his boss of 30 years.
And it could be his testimony that sinks the her defense.
If Smith told the truth during his opening remarks, then Simmons handled everything: he emailed for the congresswoman, handled her personal and financial affairs, organized her meetings and arranged her travel. Smith said Simmons brought the bogus charity to Brown.
He was dating its president at the time. They were on a boat trip when Simmons mentioned he needed a nonprofit to fund a reception for the congresswoman. Carla Wiley testified that she offered One Door.
That was in early 2012. Simmons then brought the charity to Brown, a noted fundraiser to charitable causes.
One Door sold itself as giving scholarships to underprivileged children seeking to become educators. It was named for Wiley’s mother, Amy Anderson, an 86-year-old former educator who said all a child needs is one door of opportunity to have a chance.
Simmons and Brown are accused of using that one door to snake that chance away from kids: of the $800,000 they raised, only $1,000 went to a student.
The rest is gone.
$330,000 to events and receptions around the congresswoman, per the prosecution. More than $70,000 in cash to the congresswoman. Well over $100,000 to Wiley. Simmons is accused of pocketing thousands upon thousands for himself.
The prosecution is set to question him Wednesday before lunch. While he’s agreed to take a plea deal, he hasn’t been promised anything: the only thing he’s required to do is tell the truth on the stand. The prosecution hasn’t even agreed to ask the judge to go easy on him in sentencing.
Throughout the trial, Brown’s defense has sought to paint Simmons as an untrustworthy, greedy grub who used his in with the congresswoman to erect a house of cards. When it inevitably fell down, he rushed to protect himself – by abandoning Brown and seeking refuge in a plea deal.
Not long after he changed his plea, Brown told First Coast News she was heartbroken by his betrayal. She was adamant the truth would come out. Brown’s attorney at the time even told the media she was praying for him.
Simmons had the debit cards and checkbook of One Door. Both the prosecution and the defense agree on that point. He was the one always emailing Wiley asking what the balance in the fund’s account was. He took the maximum allotment out a day from an ATM - $800 - and dropped in into the congresswoman’s bank account.
Did he do that because he had to keep the congresswoman afloat financially or she’d notice something was wrong – or did he do it because someone told him to?
This won’t be the last time Simmons testifies in Brown’s trial. The defense has also listed him as a witness they intend to call.
For more information about what’s been said at trial, considering reading some of these articles on the topic:
READ | Prosecution in Corrine Brown corruption trial suggests she inflated charitable givings by Jacob Rodriguez
READ | Prosecutors portray Corrine Brown's alleged graft as broad, institutionalized by Anne Schindler