Corrine Brown 'blindsided' by ex-chief of staff's plea deal

Former Congresswoman still plans to fight charges, maintains innocence

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – Former U.S. Rep. Corrine Brown's attorney insisted in court Thursday that she will continue to fight federal charges of conspiracy, mail and wire fraud and violations of tax laws, a day after Brown's former codefendant pleaded guilty.

Brown's lawyer, James Smith, said they were blindsided Wednesday by former chief of staff Elias "Ronnie" Simmons' decision to accept a plea agreement, pleading guilty to one count of conspiracy to commit mail and wire fraud and one count of theft of government property.

Simmons, 51, will be sentenced after Brown's trial, which is currently set for April 26. He faces up to 30 years in federal prison.

"I don't do sign language. What is the sign language to show that you have a broken heart? Because I do have one," Brown said Thursday of Simmons' decision to flip on her. "But I do have a mouthpiece. The Lord sent him to me. I'm happy with my representation. And he speaks for me."

At a status conference Thursday, Smith requested a 60-day delay in the scheduled trial, but that motion was denied. Brown's attorney was told Brown has until March 16 to decide if she will accept a plea deal on the 22 federal charges.

Judge Timothy Corrigan said he would consider another motion for continuance from Brown later if by March 9, Smith can show what the defense has been working on and why they wouldn't be ready for trial by April. If Smith decides not to file another motion for delay, the trial would go on as scheduled.

Brown's 24-year tenure in the U.S. House ended in a re-election bid defeat last fall after she was indicted in July. Brown and Simmons were accused of using an unregistered charity to raise $800,000 that prosecutors said served as a personal "slush fund."

In his plea deal, Simmons admitted that the charity -- One Door For Education -- was a sham and Brown knew that from the beginning and used her status to help raise the money for the alleged nonprofit.

“This is someone she trusted for decades. He was her chief of staff, and she related to him like a son,” Smith said. “She always thought he had good character and integrity. She is more saddened than anything.”

After Simmons' plea change, Smith acknowledged that prosecutors had also discussed a “possible resolution” ahead of trial in Brown's case, but he said that is “absolutely not” a possibility.

“Congresswoman Brown, from the very beginning, has maintained her innocence and she's going to continue to do that throughout the trial,” Smith said.

He said he knows it will be an uphill battle.

“It was always going to be tough. You're going up against the power of the United States government,” Smith said. “They have an unlimited budget and three skilled prosecutors, and they have the benefit of the perception from the public that if you are charged with a crime then you've done something.”

But he said Brown's “excellent reputation for honesty and truthfulness” among her Duval County constituents could help her case.

As she left the Federal Courthouse, Brown was flanked by supporters, including Martin Luther King III.

"I've known her for 25 years, and I know this community knows who this woman is," he said.

“Secondly, we have the facts on our side,” Smith said. “Obviously, I'm not going to try the case in the media but we have some important facts that haven't been revealed yet which we think will shed this case in a different light.”

At Thursday's hearing, prosecutors said the government will soon provide the defense with a recent four- to five-hour interview with Simmons and provide additional bank records being placed in evidence.

Smith pointed out that Brown's planned defense had been that the founder of the One Door charity had duped them, but that strategy has fundamentally changed now that Simmons admitted in his plea deal that everything Simmons and Brown had been saying was false.

"I think the fundamental question is going to be, When was he telling the truth? Was he telling the truth before or is he telling the truth now?" Smith said.

Prosecutors said Thursday that Simmons will prove the scheme to defraud was larger than just the bogus charity but involved the Friends of Corrine Brown PAC and the Alexander Agency in Jacksonville, operated by her close friend Von Alexander, who is also a part of the case against Brown, and that money was cycled through all three entities. 

Smith said he plans to call 10 to 15 members of Congress during the trial, which both sides expect to last three to four weeks.


About the Authors:

Lynnsey Gardner is an Edward R. Murrow award-winning investigative reporter and fill-in anchor for The Local Station.