JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – U.S. Rep. Corrine Brown of Florida and her chief of staff pleaded not guilty Friday to multiple fraud charges and other federal offenses in a grand jury indictment unsealed after an investigation into what prosecutors call a phony charity turned into a personal slush fund.
Brown, 69, of Jacksonville faces 22 counts and her chief of staff, Elias “Ronnie” Simmons, 50, of Laurel, Maryland, faces 19 counts in an indictment unsealed after a months-long investigation into an unlicensed educational charity based in Virginia.
Both are charged with participating in a conspiracy to commit mail and wire fraud, multiple counts of mail and wire fraud, and concealing material facts on required financial disclosure forms. Simmons is charged with theft of government property. Brown is charged with obstruction of the due administration of the internal revenue laws and filing false tax returns.
Brown, who is running for re-election in her recently drastically re-drawn Congressional district, has fought off challenges over two decades in Congress and continues to insist she is innocent of all charges.
"My heart is really heavy. This has been a very difficult time for me, my family, my constituents, but I'm looking forward to a speedy day in court to vindicate myself," Brown said as she left the courthouse. "I'm looking forward to presenting the rest of the story." [Watch Brown's full remarks]
According to the indictment, Brown solicited donations for the charity, One Door for Education and, at times, prosecutors said she used that money as a "personal slush fund."
If convicted on all charges, Brown could be sentenced up to 357 years in prison and fined $4.8 million. Simmons could face up to 355 years in prison and $4.75 million in fines.
Brown stepped down late Friday as senior Democrat on the House Veterans Affairs Committee.
"Due to House rules, I am temporarily stepping down as the ranking member," Brown said in a statement released after 5 p.m. Friday. "I am innocent of the charges announced today and intend to vigorously defend myself in court against these politically motivated allegations. I am certain this will not be a distraction from my service to the people of Florida's 5th Congressional District who elected me and I am confident I will be cleared of these charges."
House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi called the charges "deeply saddening" but said Brown did the right thing pending resolution of the case.
Brown blew a kiss to the people in the gallery as she first entered the hearing, and her attorney, Bill Sheppard, pleaded not guilty to all counts on her behalf, but U.S. Magistrate Judge James Klindt told him it wasn't yet time for that. As the indictment was read and the number of counts and possible charges were detailed, Brown appeared to wipe away tears.
After all the criminal charges were read in court, Brown and Simmons both acknowledged they understood the charges and potential penalty, and both entered a not guilty plea. A trial date was set for Sept. 6 before U.S. District Judge Timothy Corrigan, who was recently in the news as the subject of an assassination attempt.
Prosecutors recommended both be held on $150,000 bond, but Klindt decided on $50,000 bonds, and it will be unsecured, meaning they will not have to put up any money. The U.S. attorney also wanted Brown and Simmons to surrender their passports, but the judge did not require that. Brown's next required appearance in court will be a July 26 status conference. Simmons next required appearance in court will be the trial on Sept. 6.
Neither can have any contact with Carla Wiley, president of One Door, or Von Alexander, a Democratic consultant and onetime employee of Brown's congressional office, outside of presence of their attorneys.
Prosecutors claim Brown, Simmons and Wiley used money donated to the charity to buy plane tickets, repair their personal cars and to pay for luxury vacations in the Bahamas, Los Angeles and Miami Beach. The indictment said more than $200,000 from the charity was used to pay for Brown to host a golf tournament at TPC Sawgrass in Ponte Vedra Beach, to pay for lavish receptions, a luxury box at a Beyonce concert and a box when the Jacksonville Jaguars played the Washington Redskins.
The tax fraud charges against Brown date back to 2008.
“Our office is committed to ferreting out and prosecuting all forms of corruption and fraud, regardless of who the offender is,” U.S. Attorney A. Lee Bentley III said as the indictment was released Friday morning. “In our nation, no one is above the law.”
"Congresswoman Brown and her chief of staff are alleged to have used the Congresswoman's official position to solicit over $800,000 in donations to a supposed charitable organization, only to use that organization as a personal slush fund," said Assistant Attorney General Leslie Caldwell. "Corruption erodes the public's trust in our entire system of representative government. One of the department's most important responsibilities is to root out corruption at all levels of government and to bring wrongdoers to justice."
A grand jury only needs to find probable cause to return an indictment; it does not need to find guilt beyond a reasonable doubt. Grand jury proceedings are to be secret, and a grand jury hears only from prosecutors, not defense lawyers, to decide if there is probable cause to move forward with charges. If charges are filed, that person is arrested, or brought before a judge and notified of the charges.
It's not until trial that a defendant can present a defense in court, but as Brown and one of her attorneys emerged from the courthouse Friday, they said were angry with prosecutors for how the investigation was handled.
Brown's defense team lash out at prosecutors
“Congresswoman Brown is the subject of an indictment today, but in reality she has endured a one-sided inquisition in the court of public opinion for over one year," Betsy White said. "From the moment the grand jury began its investigation, the government and its willing participants, have willfully ignored the legal mandate of grand jury secrecy and have intentionally disclosed confidential information to the media and others.” [Watch White's full remarks]
White was also angered by the timing of the indictment.
"Brown agreed to fully comply and turn herself in, but requested that she be allowed to surrender next week after the House was no longer in session," White said. "Given the length of time that the congresswoman has been under investigation, as has been so publicly reported, such a request was not reasonable. Yet the government refused to offer an accommodation, so Congresswoman Brown could cast critical votes in Congress.”
White said the way the U.S. Attorney's office handled this case, "leads to the inescapable conclusion that it desires to improperly influence the upcoming election and undermine the legislative process."
Political experts, former prosecutor react
Rick Mullaney, with Jacksonville University's Public Policy Institute, and Jennifer Carroll, former lieutenant governor and News4Jax's political analyst, both believe Brown will work to keep her office, despite the indictment.
"The congresswoman has made it clear she is going to fight the charges. And after the indictment -- we should be clear that an indictment does not disqualify her from running, and it does not disqualify her as a member of Congress -- I think you can expect to see the congresswoman continue to seek re-election to the 5th congressional district," Mullaney said.
State Sen. Audrey Gibson released a statement calling Brown "the victim of circumstances, wherein she trusted someone whom she thought had a heart for the underserved, as she does."
Gibson recounted Brown's accomplishments brining a Veteran's Administration clinic to Jacksonville, helping fund Jacksonville's port, health care coverage and helping students and parents access low-interest loans.
"Congresswoman Brown has devoted countless hours to her constituents while balancing legislative and personal life in a district that had suffered from institutional neglect for years," Gibson wrote. "I look forward to her exoneration when the true facts are laid for years."
Connection to questionable charity
Wiley, the president of One Door for Education Foundation, pleaded guilty to conspiracy to commit wire fraud in March, in connection with the questionable Virginia-based nonprofit.
Those public court documents also detailed a scheme to defraud donors out of $800,000. Court documents show the money was used to benefit individuals identified only as Person A and Person B. Person A was described as a public official, and Person B was described as an associate of Person A.
It's now clear that Person A was Brown and Person B was Simmons. News4Jax learned that Simmons was dating Wiley and the two of them took at least one trip taken using charity funds.
Court filings show Wiley deposited the $800,000 into the group's bank account over the past four years, but gave out two scholarships: one for $1,000 and one for $200. Wiley transferred thousands of dollars to herself; the money was also used to fund parties, an NFL luxury box and other extravagances in Washington, D.C.
The documents also show One Door for Education was never properly registered with the IRS as a nonprofit organization. The I-TEAM obtained a flier for a 2013 golfing fundraiser at TPC Sawgrass. It showed the event was hosted by Brown and sponsored by One Door for Education.
Brown's photo also appeared on the One Door for Education's website, shown in the same photos as Wiley. Despite that, Brown publicly denied knowing Wiley to reporters in May.
"Who? I don't know who that is," Brown said. "Don't discuss local gossip with me."
That same month, federal prosecutors asked a judge to delay Wiley’s sentencing because she was being a “cooperative witness.”