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Corrine Brown Trial Begins In Jacksonville

Rep. Corrine Brown

Attorney for former Florida Congresswoman Corrine Brown says her staff betrayed her in financial transactions that led to fraud charges against her.

In the first official day of her corruption trial, the 24-year veteran of Congress faces 22 charges of fraud and conspiracy, mostly stemming from her connection to a shell education charity, One Door for Education, prosecutors allege was really her personal slush fund.

Prosecutors said Brown’s chief of staff Ronnie Simmons routinely withdrew money from the group, which his then-girlfriend ran and deposited the funds into Brown’s personal bank account, with her knowledge.

Government lawyers detailed how Simmons would withdraw the maximum daily allowed amount from One Door at one Maryland bank — $800 — and then deposit it in Brown’s Bank of America account just miles away.

Prosecutor Tysen Duva told jurors the story of Corrine Brown is one of “lying, cheating and stealing” and it started long before One Door for Education.

“You wish that was the end of the story; that was all that could be said. But sadly, it’s not. That’s far from it. There’s another side: corruption, greed and a significant entitlement attitude,” said Duva in his opening remarks.

But defense attorney James Smith argued Brown naively trusted Simmons like a son and he subsequently betrayed and lied to her, lining his pockets behind her back.

Smith laid out how Brown’s first election represented a watershed moment in politics — Brown was the first black woman elected to serve her district since Reconstruction. Smith continuously relayed the former Congresswoman’s impeccable reputation as someone who cares for her constituents.

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He also pushed back against the prosecution’s assertion that Brown knew what Simmons was doing. Instead, Smith told jurors that “as she aged, she began to rely more and more on Ronnie Simmons” and that “most of her tasks were delegated to her staff.”

Smith told jurors that an intelligent, but “in over his head” Simmons was the real mastermind behind the fraud.

However, the prosecution countered that narrative with its first witness: FBI Special Agent Vanessa Stelly.

Stelly, a white collar crimes investigator, presented a long list of bank statements detailing Simmons transferring cash from One Door to Brown’s personal account.

Using travel records, the prosecution then laid out how after a Simmons transfer, there’d be a withdrawal from Brown’s account, around her location, that would fund shopping sprees, lavish vacations and restaurant expenditures.

If convicted, Brown faces 357 years in prison and a $4.8 million fine.

The trial is expected to last two weeks. Smith said Brown will take the stand.

Reporter Ryan Benk can be reached at, 904-358-6319 or on Twitter @RyanMichaelBenk.

Ryan Benk is a former WJCT News reporter who joined the station in 2015 after working as a news researcher and reporter for NPR affiliate WFSU in Tallahassee.