Fight of Corrine Brown's life soon in hands of jury

A look back at a roller coaster trial as closing arguments begin Monday

By Lynnsey Gardner - Investigative reporter

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. - As former Congresswoman Corrine Brown's federal corruption trial heads into closing arguments Monday, one of the lasting images for those watching will be Brown sobbing on the stand Friday morning, pleading through her tears that the federal government is trying to destroy her life.

It was the emotional peak of a trial that has the 70-year-old embattled politician in the fight of her life.

Out of the gate in opening statements, the prosecution painted a darker side to the woman who served her Florida district for the last 24 years, saying she was greedy, had a “significant entitlement attitude” and stole from donors, who thought she was helping children, in order to live a lavish lifestyle she couldn't afford.

To prove it, they called 41 witnesses, including FBI and IRS agents who analyzed years of Brown's financial records to prove she was living beyond her means.

There was also testimony from big-time donors like attorney Steve Pajcic, businessman John Baker, auto dealership owner Jack Hanania and Stephen Bittel, the head of the Florida Democratic Party, who provided Brown the use of his private jet.

Then there was former Jacksonville Sheriff Nat Glover, now president of Edward Waters College, and Ju'Coby Pittman, with the Clara White Mission, who both testified that the charitable donations Brown claimed on her taxes don't match their organizations' records.

Also helping the government make its case was Von Alexander, Brown's former employee, who was implicated in helping Brown and her associates funnel money through her business. Alexander told the jury that everything she did was ordered by Brown.

Then there were the government's star witnesses: Carla Wiley, the director of One Door for Education, the unregistered charity at the center of the government's case; and Ronnie Simmons, Brown's former chief of staff. Both took plea deals and agreed to testify against Brown.

Sketch by Steve Bridges

Former U.S. Rep Corrine Brown breaks down on the stand.

The former lovers each admitted on the stand that they hatched a plan for One Door and stole the money that was supposed to go to scholarships for children. And Simmons testified that Brown did too.

Simmons told the jury he liked the idea of using his then-girlfriend's nonprofit so he could have complete control over the money. He also told the jury he'd given Brown blank checks from her campaign fund since 1993, the year after she was first elected to Capitol Hill.

Simmons said Brown ordered how all of the One Door money was spent and that no one in her office ever dared to tell her "no." Brown appeared amused by that last comment, letting out a snicker.

When it was the defense's turn, Brown's attorney called only four witnesses, including University of North Florida president and former Jacksonville Mayor John Delaney, who testified as a character witness, telling the jury that Brown is “bluntly honest.”

That statement set up Brown's own testimony, as many experts agree her defense hinges entirely on whether the jury chooses to believe her over Simmons about what she knew.

Corrine Brown Corruption trial
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Visit our Special Section to learn what's happened in and outside the courtroom, context from our team of legal experts and background on the case and the congresswoman.

The trial closed with two days of Brown herself on the stand, telling the jury the government's assessment of her financial history was “garbage” and that she “did not steal.”

Brown said that her inner circle turned on her, lied to her and all benefited from the deceit.

Now she waits in hope that her tears and testimony will ring authentic with the jury because the alternative is spending her golden years in a federal prison.

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