JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – U.S. Rep. Corrine Brown, who lost her re-election bid a week ago after 24 years in Congress, has a fourth legal team for her federal trial after three defense teams pulled out of her corruption case since she was indicted in July.
Brown, D-Florida, and her chief of staff, Ronnie Simmons, are accused of using an unregistered charity to raise $800,000 that prosecutors said they used as a personal "slush fund."
Brown's federal corruption trial was delayed until at least November to give her more time to hire new lawyers after her third legal team was allowed to bow out two weeks ago, after having just signed on to the case the week before.
Orlando-based attorney James W. Smith III has filed to be Brown's new attorney.
Prominent Orlando attorneys Mark NeJame and David Haas filed a motion last month to withdraw from the case two days after taking it on, citing “irreconcilable differences” and “an atmosphere of hostility and distrust.”
Judge James Klindt agreed to the motion on Aug. 23, allowing NeJame and Haas to drop Brown as a client.
Among the 22 federal charges against Brown are counts of conspiracy, mail and wire fraud and violation of tax laws.
Smith told the media after Wednesday's hearing that his client is innocent and is a victim of government overreach.
“These charges are false. It's unfortunate that the timing of this indictment affected democracy and influenced the election," he said. "If this indictment hadn't taken place at this time, she'd probably be returning back to Congress."
Smith said Brown will fight to the end to prove her innocence.
"There is not going to be a plea," Smith said. "This will go to trial."
Smith is a criminal defense attorney who served eight years in the U.S. Army Judge Advocate General Corps as a military prosecutor and defense counselor. He's also worked as a federal public defender and taught legal courses at Florida A&M University.
“I take great pleasure in standing for people who fight for people, and as a criminal defense attorney, I believe we have to fight, particularly in cases like this where we have government overreach,” Smith said.
He said he took Brown's case because he has followed her political career and has a lot of respect for her.
Klindt agreed last month to push the start of the federal corruption trial back to Nov. 7. Brown's next hearing date will be Oct. 11, when a trial date will likely be set. It's possible the trial could be pushed back even further and might not begin until February 2017.
Prominent local civil rights attorneys Betsy White and Bill Sheppard represented Brown when the indictment was unsealed, and attorney Greg Kehoe of the Miami-based international law firm Greenberg Traurig appeared on her behalf at a hearing.
Simmons not budging on attorney
Simmons, who was indicted alongside the 12-term congresswoman in July, told Klindt on Wednesday that he wants to keep his attorney, Tony Suarez. The judge spent nearly two hours cautioning Simmons on how an apparent conflict of interest Suarez has with one of the witnesses could harm Simmons at trial.
Simmons' attorney, Tony Suarez, previously represented a witness, Lavern Kelly, who came before the grand jury that brought the indictments against Brown and Simmons.
Prosecutors told Klindt on Wednesday that they plan to call Kelly as a fact witness during the trial. That creates a possible conflict of interest for Suarez if he has to cross-examine her, they said.
Suarez said he considers Kelly, an Orlando-based lobbyist and consultant, a friend but that he no longer represents her.
Prosecutors said Kelly, who is a longtime friend of Brown's, will testify that she communicated with Simmons via email, including about where donations for the unregistered charity One Door for Education should go.
Prosecutors said Kelly would push out information provided by Simmons about events and fundraisers for One Door to supporters in Orlando. She also told donors where to send checks, possibly including Simmons' home address and not the charity's business office in another state.
They said Kelly, who owns KNA Services, did not have a personal relationship with Simmons but that he was sometimes a go-between for Kelly and Brown.
According to an online profile, Kelly has owned her consulting business for 20 years and consulted in all of Brown's successful campaigns for Congress in that time.
Klindt expressed concern that Suarez might not be able to properly cross-examine Kelly because of his personal relationship with her. He said it's also possible Kelly told Suarez information that was confidential and that Suarez can’t use that information to help or hurt Simmons because of his legal duty to be loyal to Kelly.
Suarez could opt to not cross-examine Kelly.
"I know the testimony, and I know what she said and her role here and the overall picture of the case," Suarez said after the hearing. "I didn't perceive a conflict. If there had been a conflict, I wouldn't have taken the case at all. No lawyer wants to go to trial, as the judge said, with his hands tied behind their back."
Simmons told Klindt that he wants Suarez to continue to represent him, even if that means it hampers his ability to be represented by “effective counsel.”
Klindt said if Simmons is convicted after choosing to stick with Suarez, Simmons can’t later argue that Suarez wasn’t effective counsel. Simmons said he understood the decision and was making it freely and voluntarily.
Klindt prepared a conflict of interest waiver for Simmons to sign, and said that the waiver means Simmons cannot use conflict of interest as an argument later.
Suarez said after the hearing that he does not expect Simmons to turn on Brown to negotiate a plea deal.
Suarez said he believes the trial will be pushed back to February and did not rule out a plea of some sort in the case, even though he also maintained Simmons' innocence.