JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – The prosecutor and defense attorney used many of the same words to describe former U.S. Rep. Corrine Brown during opening statements Wednesday afternoon in her federal corruption trial, but painted very different pictures of her character.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Tysen Duva told the newly empaneled jury that while the Florida Democrat who served 12 terms in Congress was a trailblazer, politically savvy and lived up to her campaign slogan, "Corrine Delivers," she abused her position of trust.
“She had the privilege and opportunity to serve in American democracy at the highest level for Northeast Florida and Orlando. We wish that was the end of the story, but it’s not," Duva said. “The other side (to the story) is corruption, greed and a significant entitlement attitude. It’s a story of lying, stealing and cheating.”
Duva said Brown used her connections and influence to solicit money for One Door for Education and was fully aware that her chief of staff was withdrawing money from that "bogus charity" and putting it in her bank account.
"One Door was a big nothing. One door did little or nothing for students," Duva said. “She used her personal relationships and lied by commission and omission.”
Duva said Brown also lied about charitable deductions on six years of tax returns.
“She was paid $179,000 a year by taxpayers, but that wasn’t enough," Duva said. “She lied every year (on her taxes) to get a bigger return.”
When it was his turn, Brown's defense attorney, James Smith, told the jury that the government case will be based on the testimony of two witnesses: Carla Wiley, the president of One Door and her boyfriend, Ronnie Simmons, Brown's chief of staff, who prosecutors claim handled all the money.
Both Wiley and Simmons have pleaded guilty to charges connected to the case and agreed to testify against Brown before being sentenced. Smith said that some of the charges against them were dropped or reduced to compel their testimony, so their testimony should be treated "with great caution."
"You have two questions to answer, and these two questions will decide how you resolve this case: 1) Who is Ronnie Simmons, and 2) Can you trust him?"
Smith said Brown worked tirelessly for her constituents, relied on Simmons, and he betrayed her.
“By 2012, Corrine Brown was well into her mid-60s with no husband and no companion. She only had Ronnie Simmons. She delegated personal and professional affairs to him," Smith said. "He fooled her and prosecutors. Don’t let him fool you, too.”
Smith said Corrine Brown will take the stand, "because no one can tell her story better than she can."
Jury seated on trial's third day
The panel of seven men and five women sworn in Wednesday morning were whittled down from a pool of 85 people. News4Jax observed there are three black jurors, eight white jurors and one Hispanic juror. Specific information about the jurors is not released by the court.
There are four alternates: two men and two women. The judge said the jurors who are alternates will not be told they are alternates. They will mix them all in with the seating, and they will all listen to the trial as if they are all seated jurors.
The jurors were chosen from 54 people who did not have hardships, strong opinions on the case or previous contact with Brown or anyone else involved in the trial. After jurors were stricken for cause, the 36 jurors that remained moved into preemptory strikes.
Lawyers could use peremptory challenges -- up to six for the U.S. attorney and 10 for the defense -- to reject jurors that they don't think will be favorable to their side. After 12 jurors and four alternates were deemed acceptable by both sides, the jury selection process ended.
The jury will not be sequestered during the trial, but the jurors must not see any coverage of the trial until after a verdict is reached.
An FBI agent, the first government witness called Wednesday afternoon, focused on a trip Brown and her daughter, Shantrel Brown, traveled to Los Angeles in August 2013 as a $3,000 check to One Door with the memo "Children's Summer Camps" was deposited in the daughter's account. There was also a series of cash withdrawals from Open Door about the same time $3,000 in cash was deposited in Corrine Brown's personal account.
FBI testimony was expected to continue Thursday. Others scheduled to be called to the stand are Republican political consultant Susie Wiles and some donors to Brown's campaign and One Door for Education.
Brown's indictment on conspiracy, fraud and tax evasion charges claims she and others raised $800,000 for One Door. The indictment said the organization only awarded two scholarships for $1,200, and the money was instead used for Brown’s personal expenses.
If she is found guilty on all of the charges against her, Brown could face up to 357 years in prison.
Former federal prosecutor Curtis Fallgatter told News4Jax he believes that if Brown is convicted, she'll likely be sentenced to five or six years in prison, and would likely only serve 85 percent of that time.
Arriving for court Wednesday, Brown was upbeat and shared a moment of prayer with some pastors and supporters outside the U.S. District Courthouse downtown. Because of a gag order for everyone involved in the trial, she couldn't say much, letting others speak for her.
"I just think that we need to rally together and take this all the way to the end," said Jacksonville City Councilman Reggie Brown, who is one of the 35 people on Brown's witness list.