JACKSONVILLE, Fla.- The defense got in a half hour of testimony before lunch recess in the corruption trial of former U.S. Rep. Corrine Brown at the federal court building in downtown Jacksonville Thursday morning.
The first witness was Brenda Simmons Hutchins. She told the court she knew Brown in high school and then reconnected while working at Florida State College at Jacksonville while Hutchins was a English teacher and Brown counseled students.
Hutchins said the also pair worked to introduce middle school students to college as a viable option after high school.
She explained that both the congresswoman and herself worked with the Jacksonville LINKS chapter. She said it was as community organization working with young children, particularly girls, and giving them academic enrichment and cultural activities.
LINKS worked with Brown and member Ingrid Burch, who already testified for the prosecution, to get a group of young children laptop computers. They were refurbished computers from the Duval County Public School board.
The computers were given to students at an end of the year presentation. The young girls were called up one by one and given their computers.
“I’m still smiling because I can remember the smiles on all their faces,” Hutchins told the jury.
Hutchins also testified about a trip to China that several students were sent on by funds raised by Brown; the trip had come up several times already in court. Students were given the chance to go to China for free – they just had to pay for a passport.
Upon cross-examination, Hutchins was asked about the selection criteria to go on the free trip. She testified she thought it was students must be a scholar and a hard worker – no disciplinary background. She said the congresswoman chose who got to go.
As Hutchins left the courtroom, she blew a kiss to Brown.
The defense’s second witness was a staffer for Brown’s office who originally started as an intern, Rontel Batie. He told the court that Brown was a hard worker – often getting into office before 9 a.m. and leaving after everyone else. He said that a reception held by the congresswoman held during the Congressional Black Caucus’ Annual Legislative Conference was to benefit veterans.
The reception he held was not one discussed at trial – his was a veterans’ dinner on Capitol Hill. The prosecution brought up various receptions she held at hotels in earlier testimony that were paid for by One Door For Education.
Prosecutors asked on cross-examination if Batie had ever heard of One Door For Education. He’d heard they honored the congresswoman. He told the court he knew nothing about her taxes, finances, or her bank account records.
University of North Florida President and former Jacksonville Mayor John Delaney then took the stand in Brown’s defense. His is the most high-profile name next to Brown’s on the defense’s witness list.
He told the court he met Brown in the 1980's when she was in the Florida legislature. He got to know her better in 1991 when Bill Austin became mayor and he was his chief of staff. He said the city lives and dies what happens in D.C. and Tallahassee. He said she tried to get another person elected, but when Austin won she showed up and said she would do whatever to help the city.
He said she helped secure funds to repair the Fuller-Warren Bridge over Interstate 95.
Delaney went on to say she was bluntly honest. “Corrine tells the truth and is brutally honest,” he said. “I’ve always 100 percent relied on it whether I like it or not.”
Prosecuting attorney A. Tysen Duva opened his cross-examination by saying he was a graduate of UNF and started talking about the school’s baseball team before being cut off by the judge.
Duva’s only question was to ask if Delaney knew anything about the congresswoman’s finances. Delaney said he didn’t.
Testimony will continue after an hour lunch break with the congresswoman taking the stand. She is facing 22 charges in a 24-count indictment alleging mail, wire and tax fraud. If convicted on all charges, she could face up to 357 years in prison and a $4 million fine.
Her testimony is expected to take two hours, defense attorney James Smith told the court. The government said their cross-examination wouldn’t take that long and said they weren’t sure if they were going to show any rebuttal evidence.
The defense filed a motion to acquit Brown on all 22 charges Thursday morning – the judge denied 20 requests and said he had just a few legal questions on the other two. He did not say he was going to grant them.
© 2017 WTLV-TV