JACKSONVILLE, Fla. (AP) — Former U.S. Rep. Corrine Brown was either an entitled, corrupt politician who used a charity for poor kids to line her pockets or a befuddled, aging lawmaker whose trusted adviser betrayed her, lawyers said Wednesday during opening statements in her federal fraud and conspiracy trial.
Lawyers presented these two portraits of the 70-year-old Brown to a federal jury in U.S. District Court in Jacksonville, Florida, an area the former congresswoman had represented since 1993. She has pleaded not guilty to fraud, conspiracy and other charges.
Standing at a podium facing jurors, Assistant U.S. Attorney A. Tysen Duva said Brown earned a reputation as a brash, get-it-done politician over her tenure. Her success resulted in numerous re-elections until her defeat last fall.
“I wish that was the end of the story. Sadly it’s not” he said. “There’s another side of corruption, greed and a significant entitlement attitude. This case is about lying, cheating and stealing.”
Federal prosecutors said Brown and her associates used a charity called One Door for Education to bring in more than $800,000 between 2012 and 2016, much of which they used for lavish trips, tickets to a Beyoncé concert, shopping excursions in Beverly Hills and other personal expenses.
Brown’s indictment says the Virginia-based One Door only gave out one scholarship for $1,200 to an unidentified person in Florida.
Meanwhile, prosecutors said, Brown and two of her closest associates — former Chief of Staff Elias “Ronnie” Simmons and former One Door President Carla Wiley — were transferring donations to their personal accounts. Prosecutors say Simmons withdrew $800 a day, the limit, from One Door’s account via ATMs and minutes later would deposit them into Brown’s and others personal accounts.
Simmons and Wiley have already pleaded guilty and are expected to testify against Brown.
Brown also lied on congressional financial disclosure forms and in tax filings, including the amount she donated to her church, which conflicted with the church’s records, Duva said.
“When you dig even further you realize this is a way of life,” he told jurors.
Brown, who is expected testify in her own defense, sat next to her attorney during the presentation, appearing calm and confident. She chuckled with supporters in the courtroom hallway during a break.
Her attorney, James Smith, said Brown was deceived by Simmons, who was like a son to her.
Smith told jurors that around the time Simmons started depositing checks into Brown’s personal accounts, she had handed over many of her professional affairs to him.
“Around time of the questionable transactions in 2012 … she was into her mid-60s,” Smith said, adding that she was under an enormous workload as a member of Congress.
Smith said Brown didn’t know how to email or text, and highlighted that the emails used by prosecutors in their investigation were tied to Simmons and Wiley.
“A long time ago Corrine Brown placed her trust in Ronnie Simmons, and for years he betrayed her behind her back,” Smith said.
Prosecutors focused on Brown’s hands-on connection to One Door’s fundraising with its first witness, addressing the defense’s assertion that she was duped.
John Picerne, a local real estate developer who donated $10,000 to One Door, said Brown talked to him directly about the donation in a phone call.
“If Ronnie Simmons would have asked you for a $10,000 donation, would you have given it?” the prosecutor asked Picerne.
“No I wouldn’t have,” he said.
Follow Jason Dearen on Twitter: http://www.twitter.com/JHDearen
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