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Ex-Congresswoman accused of living large on charity funds

Bishop Rudolph W. McKissick, Sr., left, escorts former Congresswoman Corrine Brown to the Bryan Simpson Federal Courthouse in Jacksonville, Fla,., Wednesday, April 26, 2017, for opening arguments in her trial. Brown was indicted in July on 22 counts involving conspiracy, mail and wire fraud, filing false tax returns and hiding income. (Bruce Lipsky/The Florida Times-Union via AP)

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. (AP) — Prosecutors in Florida have told jurors a former congresswoman financed a lavish lifestyle of Beverly Hills shopping trips and fancy parties on donations to a charity ostensibly set up to help poor children with scholarships.

Testimony will continue for a second day Thursday in the trial of former U.S. Rep. Corrine Brown, 70. She has pleaded not guilty to multiple fraud and conspiracy charges. Prosecutors have laid out an expansive case in U.S. District Court, charting years of payments they say were funneled from the charity to her personal bank accounts.

“She knew exactly how to lie to these donors, and knew exactly where the cash money was going,” said Assistant U.S. Attorney A. Tysen Duva in his opening statement Wednesday.

Lawyers presented two opposing portraits of Brown to the federal jury in Jacksonville, part of a district the former Democratic congresswoman had represented since 1993. One was of an entitled, corrupt politician and the other that of a befuddled, aging lawmaker whose trusted adviser betrayed her. Her attorney James Smith said she was duped by her former chief of staff, Elias “Ronnie” Simmons.

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 — Simmons and former One Door President Carla Wiley — were transferring donations to their personal accounts. Simmons and Wiley already have pleaded guilty and are expected to testify against Brown.

Brown, who is expected testify in her own defense, sat beside her attorney during Wednesday’s presentation, appearing calm and confident. She chuckled with supporters in the courtroom hallway during a break.

Smith, her attorney, said Brown was deceived by Simmons, who was like a son to her.

Smith told jurors that around the time Simmons began 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 she was under an enormous workload as a member of Congress.

He 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.

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