JACKSONVILLE, Fla. - Corrine Brown's former chief of staff and the founder of a bogus charity used as a personal piggy bank by Brown and her associates made their cases in federal court Wednesday for what punishment they should receive for their involvement in the scheme.
It's a scheme prosecutors called one of the worst corruption cases Jacksonville has ever seen.
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Carla Wiley and Ronnie Simmons both pleaded guilty to fraud charges and testified against the former congresswoman at her federal corruption trial. Brown is scheduled for a sentencing hearing Thursday on her 18 felony convictions.
Judge Timothy Corrigan agreed Wednesday that Wiley and Simmons both qualified for reduced prison sentences because of their cooperation in the case. Sentencing guidelines recommend roughly two years for Wiley and roughly three years for Simmons.
Prosecutors said Wiley's cooperation in particular required a "leap of faith" and that Simmons' decision to testify was "gut-wrenching" because he was turning on someone he looked at as a mother.
Lawyers for Wiley and Simmons argued that their cooperation should merit either probation and community service or home detention.
Corrigan said he could decide on more or less prison time than the guidelines suggest, based on Wednesday's testimony.
"The irony is a big-time drug dealer that comes and cooperates can sometimes get a shorter sentence than the subordinates that he recruited, so that’s somewhat of the irony of the federal sentencing guidelines," said attorney Curtis Fallgatter, a former federal prosecutor. "Those who cooperate may get a lighter sentence."
Wiley cried during her testimony Wednesday, saying she has looked forward to having a chance to publicly apologize for her role in taking the money.
"I can't say I'm sorry enough," Wiley said.
Wiley and her team of attorneys tried to convince Corrigan that she simply handed over the keys to the charity that she created to honor her mother. They said it was Simmons and Brown who drove the car.
Wiley said that once the scheme started, "it got out of control" quickly.
Corrigan didn’t seem to buy that, pointing out the fraud went on for two years and that Wiley alone stole nearly $183,000.
As a convicted felon, Wiley lost her job, and her mother died of cancer two months ago.
Simmons also apologized Wednesday, saying, "I am truly remorseful."
Simmons’ attorney said his client did business in Washington, D.C., the way Brown told him to and that he should have known better and used his own judgment, but didn’t.
Prosecutors said that once Simmons "manned up" and separated himself from Brown that he conducted himself with good character and they have to credit him for that.
His mother spoke at the hearing and said she doesn't believe prison time would allow her son to repay his debt to society as much as mentoring young professionals would.
Simmons asked for probation, saying if he went to prison, it would be hard on his family, who he supports financially.
"It's been very difficult for my family," Simmons told the I-TEAM as he left court.
Simmons attorney made a case for community service that would include a radio tour in which Simmons would speak about the case and how the justice system worked properly in going after him and Brown.
"There has been a lot of victimization here by Corrine Brown, making it that she is being picked on, because of her race and that this is all unfair and unjust," Simmons' attorney Anthony Suarez said. "I think that message has to be balanced."
Prosecutors, however, said they hope Corrigan makes a point with his sentences.
“What Ronnie Simmons and Corrine Brown engaged in was deplorable conduct,” lead prosecutor Tysen Duva said. “Chiefs of staffs and members of Congress cannot steal money. This is a case that’s going to get looked at. We have to send a message.”
Neither Wiley nor Simmons learn their fate until Dec. 4, when Corrigan will hand down his sentences for Wiley, Simmons and Brown.
Brown attorney watching
Brown's attorney, James Smith, was at the hearing, telling the I-TEAM that he would be watching closely, because it’s important to hear what the government and Simmons' and Wiley's attorneys will say ahead of Brown's own sentencing hearing Thursday.
"Obviously, these are related cases, so what takes place is going to be important and relevant for my client, so I’m here to observe and see what the co-defendants and government says," Smith said.
Smith said Brown is hoping for the best for Simmons and has no hard feelings, despite his testimony against her. She also doesn't want to see Wiley get prison time, he said.
"She’s always going to view Ronnie as someone she loved and cared for like a son," Smith said. "She didn’t have a relationship with Carla Wiley, but she believes these are offenses that shouldn’t warrant anyone to go to prison."
He also said he thinks it’s good for Brown that Corrigan is taking two weeks to think about the sentence.
“It shows he has a lot to consider, and he doesn’t already have his mind made up,” Smith said.
Smith acknowledged that Brown has considered that her fate might include a stint in prison.
“She understands the possible punishment. I think she knows that tomorrow she will make a presentation to the court,” Smith said. “I think she is confident that all of the good works which she has done throughout her entire life, that the court will take those into consideration and fashion an appropriate sentence in the case.”
Founder admitted charity was fake
Wiley testified during Brown's trial earlier this year that her charity, One Door for Education, 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.
Prosecutors said in total Brown used $833,000 in donations to the charity as a personal slush fund to fund events, parties, trips, shopping sprees, car repairs and even cash withdrawals.
Wiley said shortly after starting her charity it had fundraising problems, so she closed its bank account, but that shortly after she started a personal relationship with Simmons in July 2012, he suggested reopening it.
Wiley, who admitted taking $140,000 from One Door for her personal use, said she opened a new One Door bank account, gave Simmons the debit card and the organization's only checkbook, and he began writing checks and forging her name with her knowledge.
Chief of staff testified against Brown
Brown's defense argued that Simmons was the mastermind of the charity fraud scheme, but Simmons testified that Brown “was in complete control of where the money went."
According to Simmons' testimony, Brown asked him to make the first withdrawal from One Door's account less than a week after the first donor check was deposited. He said after that her orders came in droves, from demanding cash in her hand to requesting deposits be made to her account to directing checks be mailed to Jacksonville.
Simmons testified that every cash deposit and withdrawal was at Brown's request.
According to prosecutors, that included 82 cash withdrawals for a total of $60,200 from the One Door account. Simmons testified that he gave most of that money to Brown in her office and kept "very little" cash for himself.
When asked by prosecutors why he didn't just write a check to Brown from the One Door checkbook, Simmons said, "That would have been too obvious."
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 and admitted another charity tied to the case had given his mother money before One Door ever opened its bank account.
Simmons also testified that he forged Brown’s signature on her financial disclosures for the U.S. House more than once and signed her false tax returns at least once.
Prosecutors said when Simmons pleaded guilty in February that they believe he used his sister to help steal $735,000 in salary and benefits from the U.S. House of Representatives by falsely putting her on the congresswoman's payroll, when she was actually a Duval County elementary school teacher -- a scheme that both siblings benefited from, the government said.
Simmons' sister attended his guilty plea, but was not in court for Wednesday's sentencing hearing.
Getting the money back
Prosecutors have filed forfeiture motions seeking hundreds of thousands of dollars from the three co-conspirators.
By the numbers: One Door money
Court documents and testimony revealed just how much was stolen in the One Door for Education charity fraud scheme.
- $833,000 deposited into One Door’s account
- $330,000 of that used for events for Corrine Brown
- Nearly $183,000 of that taken out by Carla Wiley
- $2,900 of it went to a trip Wiley and Ronnie Simmons took to the Fontainebleau Hotel on Miami Beach
- More than $93,000 of it was taken out in ATM withdrawals
The government wants to collect $654,292.39 from Brown, Simmons and Wiley collectively, representing the money that was fraudulently raised for One Door for Education.
Prosecutors also want to collect an additional $10,000 from Brown and Simmons, and an additional $96,000 from Simmons, in connection with his guilty plea for aiding and abetting the theft of government funds.
The forfeiture motions state that since the actual money the three received through One Door is no longer available, the government can collect other property, up to the full dollar amount.
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