I-TEAM exclusive: Corrine Brown's planned defense

Attorney for congresswoman shares strategy in corruption case

By Lynnsey Gardner - Investigative reporter , Jodi Mohrmann - Managing Editor of special projects

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. - Orlando attorney James Smith told the I-TEAM exclusively he has a strategy to defend outgoing U.S. Rep. Corrine Brown from federal corruption charges and is confident the evidence will keep her out of prison and clear her name.

Brown faces 22 fraud and tax charges and Smith filed a notice with the federal court Wednesday alerting to three motions he may possibly file moving forward.

  1. One of the most notable is to potentially ask the court to "sever the defendants." That means Smith may ask that Brown and her co-defendant -- Chief of Staff Ronnie Simmons -- be tried separately.
  2. Smith's notice also states he may potentially file a motion to allow for character witnesses to testify on Brown's behalf. These witnesses would speak to Brown's reputation versus direct testimony to the case. 
  3. Finally, Smith's filing alerts the court that he may ask to have Brown's charges be dismissed altogether. There was no legal basis filed with this notice, so it's not clear what legal grounds Brown's defense team will argue to have her case thrown out.

You may recall, Carla Wiley -- Ronnie Simmons' girlfriend and director of the questionable charity One Door for Education -- has already pleaded guilty to wire fraud. Wiley is scheduled to be sentenced in December and is also expected to be called as a witness in Brown's trial.

The I-TEAM recently went to Smith's office in Orlando where he spoke exclusively about his strategy in Brown's defense and provide insight into how his client has been doing since she was indicted in July.

"You can see from time to time the stress of this is weighing down on her," Smith told the I-TEAM.

EXTRA: Extended interview with James Smith

Smith, who is Brown's fourth attorney in this case, also admits this case is weighing heavily on him. He estimates he spends 12 hours a day preparing to fight the federal government and keep his client out of jail.

"The idea that Congresswoman Corrine Brown had any time to engage in a conspiracy or a fraud just doesn't match with everything I know about her," said Smith.

"Do you think she [Brown] surrounded herself with the wrong people?" the I-TEAM asked.

"That is what the evidence shows," Smith answered. "Unfortunately, when you are in office, and the perks of that office. Unfortunately people want to take advantage of you. One thing people need to remember is Carla Wiley has entered a plea of guilty. She admits she set up the Charity and used the initial proceeds for herself."

Smith points to Wiley's admission of guilt as one reason he is dedicating so much time to preparing Brown's defense, even though the U.S. Justice Department reports that federal prosecutors nationwide have an overall conviction rate of 91 percent and a 90-percent conviction rate when it comes to corruption cases involving public officials.

As for the possibility for a plea deal to eliminate going up against federal prosecutors, Smith says that risk decision is one his client will have to make.

"Ultimately, it's Corrine Brown's decision," said Smith. "She's maintained her innocence and wants to go forward to trial."

Smith did not know if Brown would take the stand in her own defense.

"That's a decision we will have to make. I'm not going to make any news here on that particular decision," Smith said.

One decision Smith did share with the I-TEAM is his strategy for defending Brown. It's based on two key points.

"First and foremost, her character and reputation. This is someone who has 40 years of faithful and dedicated service and we are going to have a number of people to come in to court to testify to that," Smith explained -- something proven by his filing today to potentially ask the court to allow for character witnesses at trial. "Second pillar, going to point out that the government’s case is almost all circumstantial. There is little to no direct evidence that points to her guilt."

Smith tells the I-TEAM he also plans to tell the jury the real mastermind behind the alleged corruption is the charity's director, Carla Wiley.

"The case relies on an individual who has admitted in court to being a liar, to being a thief and who has admitted that she had no direct relationship with the congresswoman," Smith explained. "When people get caught, they realize they can help themselves by pointing the finger at someone else."

 "Do you think Carla Wiley is throwing Corrine Brown under the bus to save herself?" the I-TEAM asked Smith.

"Everything I've seen before strongly suggests that, yes," he answered. "Frankly, this looks to be a case of guilt by association."

At the heart of Brown's case is the allegation she used money intended for the charity for her own personal use.

"Isn't it suspicious Corrine Brown would make payments on days, or a few days after certain amounts from One Door would be deposited directly into her account?" asked the I-TEAM.

"Well, if your foundation is that Corrine Brown made these payments, then I can understand the suspicion that some people might have. But let's just say that once the evidence gets to court, I think you'll see that, like most people that who have high powered jobs and positions, they rarely -- if ever -- are engaging in the day-to-day management of their financial affairs," Smith explained.

The I-TEAM obtained a flier where Brown invited people to the Corrine Brown Invitational Golf Tournament to raise money for One Door for Education. 

"Is that not a smoking gun?" we asked Smith.

"It depends on how you view that evidence. Who prepared that flier? And at the time the flier was made, was their truthful intent to raise money for the charity? Understand the crime is not running the charity in a sloppy way," Smith explained. "The issue is, did Corrine Brown engage in a deliberate conspiracy to defraud individuals. I think the answer to that is no."

Smith says he is putting a lot of faith in the common sense of jurors, but does admit the stakes are high.

"Prison is a possibility. We try not to focus on that. Our focus is a strong and vigorous defense," Smith said.

It's a defense, spearheaded by evidence Smith says prosecutors haven’t seen -- and won’t see -- until trial.

"Once we get to trial, we’re confident, once the jury sees that information, they’re going to find that Congresswoman Brown was a victim of circumstance rather than someone who committed a crime," he said. 

Smith added he does expect the trial to go forward in February. He also tells the I-TEAM he will not ask for a change of venue because he believes he will be able to find a fair and impartial jury right here in Jacksonville.

In the 22-count indictment against Brown, there are a number of people in her inner circle -- who aren't specifically named, but alluded to. The I-TEAM is told they will almost certainly be called as witnesses at her trial. In fact, a source tells the I-TEAM Brown's daughter was called to testify before the grand jury, but she exercised her 5th Amendment right not to. If called to testify during trial, it is possible she will do the same thing.

As mentioned above in this article, Brown's defense team filed a notice with federal court to alert the court of possible motions it may file moving forward. Federal prosecutors filed its own notice as well.

  1. Federal prosecutors are considering blocking Brown's defense team from calling character witnesses to the stand, seemingly only wanting jurors to hear testimony directly connected to the corruption case.
  2. Prosecutors may ask the judge to give specific guidelines to defense attorneys as to what they can and cannot tell jurors about how the charges against Brown came about. They may try to keep attorneys from conveying to jurors there was "improper motivation" in seeking the indictment against her.
  3. Lastly, federal prosecutors may try to keep out any pleas to the jury for "mercy" on Brown's behalf. This includes keeping out any argument of “jury nullification which is defined as when a jury returns a verdict of “not guilty,” despite believing the defendant is guilty of the violation charged in the indictment. In these cases, the jury would nullify the law if they believed it was immoral or improperly applied.

Brown's next status hearing is scheduled for Oct. 25. While Brown's defense team will be present for this hearing, she does not have to appear.

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