JACKSONVILLE, Fla.- “The Congresswoman asked me.”
That was the upshot of Wednesday’s testimony by Ronnie Simmons, chief of staff to former Congresswoman Corrine Brown and possibly the most consequential witness in the case against her.
During more than 3 ½ hours of testimony Wednesday, Simmons said he funneled hundreds of thousands of dollars through a bogus charity at Brown’s behest, and with her full knowledge.
Simmons worked for Brown for 24 years, and was initially charged as Brown’s co-conspirator. In February, he agreed to plead guilty to 2 of the 18 charges he faced and testify against Brown.
The difficulty of the moment was evident from the first question. “No place you’d rather be, right?” asked Prosecutor Tysen Duva. “Right,” Simmons answered.
Dressed in a grey suit and his signature high-collared white oxford, Simmons answered the first dozen questions in a loud, clear voice – a voice that quieted considerably when asked to implicate his former boss. Simmons testified that he withdrew tens of thousands in cash from the One Door for Education bank account in $800 dollar increments – the daily limit – and gave most of it directly to Brown.
“Why didn’t you just write her a check,” prosecutor Tysen Duva asked. Simpson replied, “That would have been too obvious.”
“Why didn’t you just tell her I’m not going to do that?” Duva asked. “I usually didn’t tell her no,” Simmons answered.
“What happened if you said no,” Duva pressed. “I don’t know,” Simmons replied. “Nobody really found out.”
Simmons’ testimony reinforced that of earlier witnesses, including his former girlfriend Carla Wiley, who testified Tuesday that she started One Door as a scholarship fund, but allowed it to become a bogus means of funneling money to the congresswoman. Wiley has admitted to helping herself to some $140,000 of the money flowing trough the fake charity.
Simmons testified today that he had no idea Wiley was plundering the fund: “Never.”
But Simmons himself admitting using One Door funds for his personal use, including a Miami vacation with Wiley. The money raised was never used to buy computers for underprivileged students, and was never used as a public relations talking point, like many of her other civic endeavors.
Of the $833,000 in donations that came into One Door, Simmons testified, it gave away just one scholarship, worth $1200 dollars.
Asked why he made the transactions in cash, rather than writing a check, he told prosecutors “that would have been too obvious.”
Brown’s attorney James Smith attempted to cast Simmons as a faithless employee who had broad control over his boss’ finances. He noted that Simmons admitted to forging signatures on checks from One door, and signing both Brown’s tax returns and her Congressional financial disclosure forms.
“She trusted you?” he asked. “Yes,” Simmons answer.
At least one of Brown’s daily supporters – in a galley filled with them -- wept during Simmons testimony. Simons himself occasionally sipped water from a small plastic cup.
Smith also suggested that Simmons was pleading guilty because prosecutors threatened to prosecute his sister, who held a “ghost” job in Brown’s congressional office.
Simmons says he chose to plead despite his long friendship with Brown.
“It was difficult because of my relationship with the Congresswoman,” he said. “But I’ve been going through this for 15 months…. “It was just the right thing to do tell the truth and get over with.”
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