JACKSONVILLE, Fla. (AP) — The head of a purported charity for poor children that federal prosecutors say former U.S. Rep. Corrine Brown used as a personal slush fund testified Monday that she gave the congresswoman’s chief of staff unfettered access to the organization’s bank accounts.
Former One Door for Education Foundation President Carla Wiley has pleaded guilty to fraud for using the charity’s money for her own personal expenses amounting to about $140,000. After reaching a plea agreement, she testified at Brown’s federal fraud trial in Jacksonville.
Wiley said she started One Door to help fund education for the poorest children, but that it instead turned into a money source for Brown’s events. Prosecutors say Brown and her chief of staff, Ronnie Simmons, financed lavish trips and other personal expenses with funds donated to One Door.
Brown, who has pleaded not guilty, has defended herself saying Simmons spent the money without her knowledge. Simmons has also pleaded guilty, and is expected to testify against Brown.
Wiley said shortly after starting her charity it had fundraising problems, so she closed its bank account. She reopened it after she met Simmons.
“He mentioned he needed a nonprofit to host a reception for the congresswoman,” Wiley said. She’d registered One Door as a nonprofit, so said she could help.
Wiley opened a new One Door bank account and gave Simmons the debit card and the organization’s only checkbook, even though she was its president. Simmons began writing checks and forging Wiley’s name with her knowledge.
“I trusted that he could manage correctly,” she said.
Wiley said Simmons and Brown were responsible for the bulk of the fundraising, because of Brown’s political and social connections. Overall, federal prosecutors say One Door raised more than $800,000, much of which was used by Brown for events including a Beyonce concert, the use of a private box at an NFL game and a shopping trip to Beverly Hills.
Meanwhile, One Door gave out only $1,200 in scholarships, prosecutors said.
Simmons wrote regular emails to Wiley asking her to check One Door’s bank balance. Once checked, Simmons would write checks or withdraw cash from One Door’s account, some of which was deposited directly into Brown’s personal checking account.
At the same time, Wiley was also using One Door’s donations to pay for personal car payments, and other bills. She said at first she did not know that Simmons and Brown were also misusing the funds, but at some point she realized scholarships were not being paid out.
Wiley also allowed One Door’s nonprofit registration to lapse, meaning it was accepting donations even though it wasn’t any longer legitimate, she said.
Brown attorney James Smith attacked Wiley’s credibility, pointing out her own fraud and that she hid her personal use of the charity’s funds from Simmons, her boyfriend at the time.
Simmons, too, secretly funded at least one romantic getaway with Wiley through the charity.
“He fooled you into thinking he was spending his own money?” Smith asked. Wiley responded “correct.”
Last year, FBI agents showed up at Wiley’s workplace to confront her in the fraud investigation. She initially lied to them.
“The main reason was fear. I felt like if I lied … it would go away,” she said.
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