JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – In the most-anticipated moment of her federal corruption trial, former U.S. Rep. Corrine Brown took the stand Thursday afternoon, denying the allegations against her and at times becoming emotional as she defended herself, her career and her reputation.
“The only thing that you have in life is your name," Brown said from the stand. "That’s all you have -- your name, your reputation. My reputation means something to me.”
Brown, 70, was indicted last July on 22 federal charges, including participating in a conspiracy to commit mail and wire fraud, mail and wire fraud, concealing material facts, obstruction of IRS laws and filing false tax returns.
Under oath, Brown denied committing any of those crimes but said repeatedly that she should have paid closer attention to her personal affairs.
"(I) did not steal. That’s not who I am," Brown said. "I am someone who deeply cares about her community, works night and day for her constituents, did job fairs, foreclosure workshops, always involved in so many projects that I didn’t take time to take care of my personal affairs. I should have been more attuned to what was going on around me.”
After eight days of bruising government testimony against her by federal agents, the IRS, former friends and respected community leaders, Brown often seemed overwhelmed on the stand as she tried to get out all she wanted to say to the jury. Her attorney had to rein her in several times during more than two hours of testimony and direct her back to the question at hand.
She cried as she told jurors who she blames for the crimes: her former chief of staff Ronnie Simmons.
"I love Ronnie Simmons like a son," Brown said. "There's a lot of young people in this community that end up in jail, a lot of them. I never would have wanted that to happen to Ronnie. I never thought he would steal."
Federal fraud case
At the center of the government's case against Brown is an unregistered Virginia-based charity, One Door for Education, which was headed by the Simmons' girlfriend.
Federal investigators said the One Door foundation, which was billed as a way to give scholarships to poor students, raised $833,000, but only gave out one $1,200 scholarship.
"I don’t want anyone who donated money to think it did not go to where I said it would," Brown said on the stand. "I heard more about One Door in the past 15 months. Before it was not a major issue. Now I know it should have been."
Over several days of testimony, prosecutors have documented that at least $300,000 of One Door's funds paid for receptions, luxury boxes at sporting events and concerts, and trips and expenses for Brown and her associates.
"Every event you have, there is a cost associated with that," Brown said. “If they cost too much money, we didn’t have it again.”
She said she had no idea One Door wasn't properly registered.
"I think this would be a lesson for a lot of people, make sure they have their 501(c)(3)," Brown said.
Brown's testimony, including a comment on the hopes of the Jacksonville Jaguars, sparked laughter from the gallery several times, and at least once people watching the proceedings from an overflow room stood up and cheered.
The prosecution didn't finish its cross-examination of Brown before court wrapped for the day, so she will be on the stand again Friday morning after more than three hours of testimony Thursday.
Simmons testified against Brown on Wednesday, delivering potentially damning statements about her control over where money from One Door would be spent.
Simmons, who has pleaded guilty to two related counts in a plea deal with the government, said One Door started off as a way to raise money to fund a reception that was held during the Congressional Black Caucus Foundation meetings in Washington, D.C.
Soon, however, federal prosecutors say it became a personal slush fund for the congresswoman, Simmons and the foundation's president, Carla Wiley. Wiley has also pleaded guilty and testified for the prosecution earlier this week.
Brown's attorney has argued Simmons was the mastermind and took advantage of the aging lawmaker.
"I would have fired him (if I knew he was stealing), but I loved him," Brown testified Thursday of Simmons, who she said was like a son to her.
She said she first learned Simmons had been stealing money when he took his plea agreement.
“I did not know Ronnie was not taking money that was not his reimbursement," Brown said. “There is no way I would have done anything to cause Ronnie to go to jail or anybody. Never would I have done (that).”
Other defense witnesses
The defense called only three witnesses besides Brown, even though their initial witness list included more than 30 names.
“This is a very difficult case to defend,” said attorney Gene Nichols, who is not connected with the case and is one of several lawyers analyzing the trial for News4Jax. “It’s a very costly case to defend. And when you don’t get to find out everything the government is putting up until you get to trial, it’s hard to prepare a witness list. It appears that several of the witnesses that were listed were there for mitigation purposes but don’t have any knowledge about the government’s allegations, and if they cannot comment on the guilt or innocence of Congresswoman Brown, then their testimony is not relevant for trial, only for sentencing, which is why we are now not hearing from several of the witnesses.”
Among those to testify for the defense was University of North Florida President John Delaney, a former mayor of Jacksonville, who described his good relationship with Brown and said she is "bluntly honest." He admitted under cross-examination that he knew nothing of Brown's personal finances or her dealings with One Door, outside of what he'd seen in media reports.
"I lived in a courtroom for 10 years as the chief assistant state attorney," Delaney told News4Jax after his testimony, "and I think the thing I wish I could have said is how kind she is as a human being. She’s kind of a cartoon, especially among my Republican colleagues, but she is one of the hardest-working people you will ever meet. Some of the kindest gestures that you would ever want to see, and I’m proud to have her as a friend and I hope this works out."
The defense's other two witnesses were a longtime friend of Brown's and a former Brown staffer. The friend spoke about a computer drive Brown led and about a sponsored China trip that her grandson went on that was connected to the One Door charity.
With testimony wrapping up Friday, closing arguments and jury instructions have been set for Monday, signaling an end is near for the federal corruption trial.
Prosecution rests case
The prosecution rested Thursday after testimony from an IRS agent, who said that he found $142,000 in Brown's accounts that she had not declared as income. He said that if not for that money, Brown would not be able to pay her bills and testified that Brown spent much of the money at high-end stores, such as Neiman Marcus and Nordstrom, and on travel.
After the prosecution rested, Judge Timothy Corrigan denied a motion from Brown's defense attorney requesting an acquittal.
Corrigan declined to acquit Brown on 19 of the 22 charges, but said he would reserve judgment on two of the charges -- one related to House disclosure forms and another related to obstructing administration of IRS laws.
He said he's not likely to grant the motions, but he wants to wait to rule until after he's discussed it with the lawyers.
Simmons testified before a riveted jury Wednesday that at Brown's direction, he gave her a steady stream of blank checks and cash from the One Door account and her own campaign fund account.
Brown countered Thursday by saying that she believed any cash Simmons gave her was his own.
“I always felt -- and he would tell me -- it was his personal cash. When we had an event, he’d put up his personal credit card,” Brown said, admitting she'd didn't see the card. “But that's what he told me.”
Simmons' attorney, Anthony Suarez, said Wednesday that spending One Door's money at will was a pervasive mentality for Brown and Simmons.
“They understood each other, and they understood that this is the way that they could handle this: She raised the money. She had the power.... Thus, she had the right to it,” Suarez said. “Everyone who worked around Corrine Brown says, 'She gives the orders, because she raises the money.' (The idea was that) she's responsible to those people that she raised the money from and therefore whatever she wants to spend the money on is appropriate.”
Under cross-examination, Simmons admitted that he lied for years about One Door, that he lied to the FBI when investigators came to question him about it and that he lied to Brown's defense attorney when the attorney, at one point, was going to represent him along with Brown.
Simmons said he had to be overly cooperative with the government to get a reduced sentence for his own crimes.
“I am not surprised that it appears that the vast majority of the defense is going to be based upon the cross-examination of Ronnie Simmons and the direct testimony of Corrine Brown,” Nichols said. “Clearly the defense is going to argue Simmons wasn’t telling the truth and Brown was unaware, and they are going to rely upon asking the jury to believe Brown and not Simmons. If that is the main focus of the defense, her testimony means everything.”