JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – Carla Wiley, the founder and president of One Door for Education, testified under oath Monday that the Virginia charity was originally named after her mother, a teacher, to fund education for the poorest children, but she was asked by former U.S. Rep. Corrine Brown's chief of staff to use the organization to help the congresswoman on fundraisers.
Wiley admitted One Door paid over $300,000 for Brown's events and a shopping trip to Beverly Hills, and that the charity only gave out a single $1,000 scholarship to a student.
Brown, 70, is on trial on 22 fraud, conspiracy and tax charges, most connected to money that she helped raised for One Door, but prosecutors say funded events, parties, trips, shopping sprees, car repairs and even cash withdrawals for the former congresswoman and her inner circle.
Wiley pleaded guilty to fraud charges last year and agreed to testify against Brown, but said she was never promised a deal or lesser sentence if she testified.
Brown's former chief of staff, Ronnie Simmons, who has also pleaded guilty to related charges, is scheduled to testify Tuesday afternoon.
Wiley said shortly after starting her charity it had fundraising problems, so she closed its bank account. Wiley said that shortly after she started a personal relationship with Simmons in July 2012, he suggested reopening it.
"He mentioned he needed a nonprofit to host a reception for the congresswoman," Wiley said. She'd originally registered One Door as a nonprofit, so said she could help.
Wiley opened a new One Door bank account and gave Simmons the debit card and the organization's only checkbook, even though she was its president. Simmons began writing checks and forging Wiley's name with her knowledge.
Wiley admitted she did take about $140,000 from Open Door for her personal use. Wiley said she lied when the FBI originally interviewed her about One Door in January 2016.
“The main reason was fear," Wiley said. "I thought that if I lied and got them to leave the office, it would all go away.”
She said that night she had a four-way call with Simmons, Corrine Brown and the congresswoman's daughter, Shantrel Brown.
During cross-examination, Wiley said that Ronnie Simmons handled all the logistics with donors and directed her to send out fundraising letters and even was aware that he had forged her signature.
Wiley said she was aware that people giving thought One Door was a tax-deductible charity when she knew that its nonprofit status had lapsed. She said Brown also probably did not know that One Door hadn't filed its 501c(3) paperwork with the Internal Revenue Service.
Simmons even secretly funded at least one romantic getaway with Wiley using the charity's funds.
"He fooled you into thinking he was spending his own money?" defense attorney James Smith asked. Wiley responded "correct."
Monday afternoon Von Alexander, a former member of Brown's congressional staff who now runs her own public relations firm, testified that Brown had given her blank One Door for Education checks, as well as those of the Friends for Corrine Brown campaign fund.
Alexander testified that Brown asked her to fill in the various amount of money totaling many thousands of dollars, deposit them into her bank account and write a check to the congresswoman, for that amount. Alexander said that Brown told her it was for reimbursement for various events.
Alexander also testified that Simmons would have her do the same, except asked her to put money both into Browns' account and into Brown’s daughter’s bank account. At one point, Alexander told the prosecutor she "wasn't in a position to tell Corrine Brown no to things."
Alexander said that she often saw checks with Carla Wiley's signature, but she knew they had been signed by Simmons. She said that this method of "reimbursements" had been going on for six or seven years, but she wasn't concerned because she trusted Brown.
During cross-examination, Alexander was asked about some memory loss due to medical issues. She said that talking to the FBI helped refresh her memory.
Local attorney Rhonda People-Waters, part of a legal team following Brown’s trial for News4Jax, said the defense will hammer about the fact that Wiley and Simmons made plea deals with prosecutors to testify.
“That’s what her attorney James Smith has to hit on. He needs to come out and say, 'You are enticed to give this type of testimony because of the benefit you are going to gain,'" Peoples-Waters said. “Because of the plea bargain that you made with the government, you get your sentence, which would typically have been a number of years, will possibly be probation."
A week into Brown’s trial, Peoples-Waters said she thinks the prosecutors made strides with donors taking the stand.
“They were the donors and gave the money and were unaware that it was going to benefit Corrine,” Peoples-Waters said.
The defense surprised a number of people by showing evidence that One Door for Education spent tens of thousands of dollars for children, including trips to China, but Peoples-Waters said it’s still well short of the money the fund is accused of mishandling.
“You still have a wide gap when you’re explaining possibly the other $600,000, possibly $700,000, that was utilized for the educational purpose,” Peoples-Waters said.
Prosecutors expect to wrap their case on Wednesday -- one day ahead of schedule.
Peoples-Waters said the most important testimony will eventually come from Brown herself, who is expected to take the stand in her own defense either late this week or early next week.