JACKSONVILLE, Fla. - Former Congresswoman Corrine Brown's longtime chief of staff, Ronnie Simmons, pleaded guilty Wednesday to two conspiracy and corruption felonies, and implicated her in his crimes.
Simmons pleaded guilty to two of 18 charges in a federal indictment filed in July 2016: Conspiracy to commit wire or mail fraud, and theft of government funds.
Specifically, Simmons admitted helping create a fake charity, One Door For Education, and using money raised via the charity to unjustly enrich himself and Brown. He also admitted hiring a family member for a shell job in Brown’s administration, sharing her salary via a joint checking account.
If Simmons were to receive the maximum punishment for the two charges, he would face up to 30 years in prison and a $500,000 fine.
However, according to the plea deal, prosecutors are recommending a "downward adjustment" of his sentence and consideration of his "substantial cooperation." A judge is not bound by the plea deal.
In exchange, Simmons must truthfully testify against his former boss, and anyone else involved in the case, at the request of prosecutors.
Simmons was indicted July 6, 2016 alongside Brown, who was charged with 22 related counts. She has pleaded not guilty.
Anthony Suarez, Simmons' attorney, described his decision to testify against her as "gut wrenching" for his client. But, he said the fake charity scheme was merely a symptom of a pay-to-play political system.
"I don’t think donors thought they were giving away money for vacations, but not all of them necessarily thought they were giving money for the purpose of education," he said after court. "They really wanted access. We’ve see how politics work, and the reason you give donations is to have access."
James Smith, Brown’s attorney, said before Wednesday’s hearing that he expected Simmons to plead guilty, but that any plea deal would not affect his client’s case, and she remains steadfast in her defense. "She is innocent," Smith told First Coast News, "and she intends to prove that when this case goes to trial April 24."
Brown, a 12-term Democratic congresswoman, lost her seat in November's election, following fallout from the indictment and a redistricting change that reshaped her district.
Former federal prosecutor Curtis Falgatter, who is not involved in the case, said the plea will obligate Simmons to testify against Brown, and that he likely will not be sentenced until after the case against her is concluded. "In terms of the impact on Corrine Brown, we will want to see what he’s pleading to -- if she was involved in fraud, if she knew it was fraud."
Brown case is scheduled for a status hearing Thursday