After emotional testimony, Corrine Brown says, 'Pray for me'

Former congresswoman denies allegations of federal corruption, fraud

By Jim Piggott - Reporter, Lynnsey Gardner - Investigative reporter, Eric Wallace - Senior Producer, I-TEAM, Jason Dearen - Associated Press

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. - As she left the federal courthouse after an emotional day of testimony in her corruption trial, former U.S. Rep. Corrine Brown blew a kiss to the News4Jax camera and when asked what she wanted to say to her supporters, replied only, “Pray for me.”

During her second day testifying, Brown again denied taking any money from what the government calls a sham charity and then broke down in tears Friday morning.

Testimony wrapped up before noon and the defense rested, setting the stage for closing arguments on Monday and signaling the trial's end is near.

Under cross-examination by prosecutors Friday morning, Brown became overwhelmed, asked for water and then sobbed, "They're trying to destroy my life."

The jury watched as Brown broke down but then the jurors were escorted out of the room when Judge Timothy Corrigan called a recess, and they did not look back at Brown as she continued to sob from the stand.

Brown was helped out of the courtroom and when she returned 10 minutes later, was composed as the prosecutor continued his questioning.

Just before the cross-examination ended, Brown said that some of the more than $140,000 in unexplained cash the IRS found in her accounts was from “Christmas, birthdays and sometimes I have boyfriends,” eliciting a laugh from observers watching from an overflow room.

During her testimony, Brown took shots at the FBI and IRS investigators involved in her case, questioning their techniques and calling their analysis of her banking activity “garbage.” Brown and prosecutor Tysen Duva also had several heated exchanges that forced Corrigan to step in.

Prior to breaking down on the stand, Brown had testified she was aware that her chief of staff, Ronnie Simmons, had charged up to $10,000 for events on his credit card and was reimbursed.

IMAGES, SKETCHES: Friday images inside/outside Corrine Brown trial | 
LEGAL COMMENTARY: Roundtable discussion on Corrine Brown trial
VIDEO: Corrine Brown breaks down in courtroom

"I am just like everyone else. I know how to rob Peter to pay Paul," Brown said. "At no point did I think the money put in his account was stolen money -- not one. Do you think I would jeopardize my constituents?"

Brown was repeatedly asked how she did not know about money that was in her own bank account.

“I have constantly explained to you (that) any money put in my account by Mr. Simmons, he told me it was his reimbursements,” Brown said. “I had no idea that a dime was money he was stealing.”

Brown was asked why Simmons would be putting his money in her account, but she did not have a good explanation for that.

Brown, who is facing nearly two dozen federal fraud and conspiracy charges, testified in her own defense for more than two hours Thursday, saying she was left in the dark while Simmons siphoned thousands of dollars from the One Door for Education charity.

The Jacksonville Democrat told the jury she was betrayed by Simmons, her former top aide.

"I loved Ronnie Simmons like a son," said Brown, crying. "A lot of young people in this community end up in jail. I never would have wanted that to happen to Ronnie."

The prosecution didn't finish its cross-examination of Brown before court wrapped for the day, which put her back on the stand Friday morning, when she had her emotional outburst.

Federal prosecutors want Brown to go to prison for a scheme to raise $833,000 for the One Door for Education Foundation, which promised that the money would go to provide scholarships and computers for poor children.

Instead, the charity gave only $1,200 in scholarships while Brown, Simmons and the foundation's president, Carla Wiley, spent funds on a lavish lifestyle, according to their indictments.

Sketch by Steve Bridges

Brown also is charged with lying on her taxes about charitable donations the government said she never made, and falsifying her congressional financial disclosure forms.

But court observer Rod Sullivan, a local attorney and law professor, said Brown's emotional breakdown might make her more sympathetic to the jury, which could affect the verdict.

Local attorney Randy Reep, who has been analyzing the trial for News4Jax, agreed.

"I think it helped her greatly," Reep said. "It’s the exact thing you want to see her do. She wasn’t as combative. She was raw and sincere, if you believe her."

Near the end of her testimony, Brown said she takes responsibility for how things ended up.

“I was so involved, but not taking care of my personal office, and not making sure that things were going proper -- we wouldn’t be here today,” Brown said.

She said the same thing about her taxes, adding that she trusted others and that even though she signed the documents, she did not look them over.

Brown defends her reputation

Brown's attorney, James Smith, asked Brown on Thursday if she has lived a fancy life, or was a "money-spending machine."

"Some people play golf. Some people play basketball. I like shopping," Brown said. "Where do I like shopping? The Dollar Store," Brown said, eliciting chuckles from the courtroom.

Simmons, who has pleaded guilty to two related charges, testified Wednesday that Brown ordered him to take money from One Door's accounts and deposit it into her personal bank account. He said he also forged checks from the charity but left the amount blank and gave the checks to Brown in her office, also on her orders.

Prosecutors say Brown would write the One Door checks out to the business of another staffer, Von Alexander, who owned a public relations agency. Alexander testified that she would deposit the checks into her agency's account, then write checks out to cash as instructed by Brown. Alexander said she then deposited that cash into Brown's personal account.

Sketch by Steve Bridges

Corrine Brown is questioned by her attorney.

Prosecutors presented evidence that One Door funds were used to finance numerous expensive events, including a luxury box at an NFL game, a Beyonce concert and a golf tournament at TPC Sawgrass in Florida. Brown was at all of the events, and her name was used on materials promoting them as benefits for One Door.

Despite this evidence, she said she didn't know that One Door money was going directly into her account.

"(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.”

"How could you not know about thousands of dollars going into your bank account?" her attorney asked.

"I wish I could answer that. I wish I paid closer attention to my finances. I was always busy working on things for my constituents," Brown said.

Brown, 70, represented a Jacksonville congressional district from 1993-2016. She lost re-election after she was indicted last summer. On the stand, she said she didn't know about the scheme until after the indictment was filed, and that her only mistake was being too trusting of Simmons, and perhaps too laissez-faire about her personal finances.

"I got so busy ... that I wasn't taking care of Corrine's business," she said. "I made mistakes -- not paying close attention, and not taking care of me."

Sketch by Steve Bridges

Prosecutor Tysen Duva

Duva pointed out in cross-examination that being a member of Congress is a demanding job that requires high intelligence -- the opposite of the portrait Brown sought to portray of herself on Thursday.

Duva pointed out that Brown had mastered the intricacies of the complicated federal budget process, and been successful over her decades in office in winning money and jobs for her district.

"You had a slogan. What was the slogan?" Duva asked Brown.

"Corrine delivers," she responded.

Federal fraud case

At the center of the government's case against Brown is One Door for Education, an unregistered Virginia-based charity that was headed by Wiley, who has pleaded guilty to related charges and is awaiting sentencing.

"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."

Corrine Brown Corruption trial
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Over several days of testimony, prosecutors 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 Thursday, 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.

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).”

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