Corrine Brown breaks down on stand; defense rests

Clark Fouraker reports. 5/5/17

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. - Former congresswoman Corrine Brown had a breakdown on stand during cross examination Friday morning.

It was a long and winding road of backtracking over the former congresswoman's finances during the eighth day of testimony her fraud and corruption trial - until she eventually started crying on the stand and asked for a moment.

"Do you think I would jeopardize my constituents!" she shouted during testimony. "If [Ronnie Simmons] gave me any money my perception was it was his money – do you think I would do that?"

She's referring to money that the prosecution says was pulled from the account of a One Door For Education, a bogus charity Brown raised money for, and then put into her account by Simmons, her chief of staff. In all, she would receive tens of thousands of dollars between 2012 - 2015. One Door was ostensibly meant to further students' paths into the education field and provide them scholarships.

Brown is accused of committing mail, wire and tax fraud and staring down 22 charges.  If convicted on all counts, she could face 357 years in federal prison

During Assistant U.S. Attorney A. Tysen Duva questions about thousands of dollars appearing into her account in August 2013, she put a stop to questioning and told the court she needed a moment while crying on the stand.

"They are trying to destroy my life!" she said as her attorney consoled her.

Read coverage of Brown's Thursday testimony at this link.

Her chief of staff would often put money into her account from One Door by withdrawing cash at one bank and depositing it into her account. The prosecution maintains that without this extra money - sometimes thousands in a few weeks - Brown's accounts would have been overdrawn by an average of $1,420 per month.

She was adamant on the stand Friday that she didn't have money troubles. "I know you keep saying I do," she quipped to Duva.

Their interactions were rarely friendly and at best cordial. Regularly, the judge would have to interrupt both of them. Brown would be told to actually answer a question and Duva would have to be told to let Brown finish speaking.

"I'm not trying to do that, your honor," Duva eventually said, "it's hard to know when she's done."

Brown also thanked Judge Timothy Corrigan for his patience and apologized for her conduct on the stand.

"You don't have to apologize to me," Corrigan said.

The bulk of the testimony centered around money flowing into and out of Brown's Bank of America account. Her former aide, Von Alexander, kept coming up; she would deposit checks in Brown's accounts from her public relations firm with cash given to her from One Door For Education, according to her testimony.

Brown disputed that, suggesting multiple times that the prosecution may have fed her those lines. She would not say outright that Duva or other federal investigators told her, but she said Alexander was threatened with an indictment.

Corrigan would eventually put a stop to these exchanges.

It took nearly half an hour for the pair to go over three checks from One Door; between Brown's long answers and a few sustained objections from Brown's lawyer over Duva's line of questioning.

Brown often repeated herself when answering questions after Duva asked similar questions about who signed what check or put money into whoever's account. At one point, Brown pointed out the repeated questions.

Corrigan told her to just answer the questions posed to her.

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.

Upon redirect, Smith asked if she ever told Simmons to commit fraud. She said, no.

"Do you blame anyone else besides yourself for the shambles your office was in?" Smith asked.

Brown took a moment to reply. "I would have to say that I have to take the major amount of responsibility, because it was my office," she said. "But of course my chief of staff and my district person, I guess. We all are responsible in some way... I was doing everything but taking care of my personal office... because we never should be here today."

"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.

The defense rested. Duva told the court he won't call any rebuttal witnesses.

Corrigan then dismissed the jury for the day and said he intends to begin closing arguments first thing Monday morning.

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