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Brown's Former Chief Of Staff Testifes In Corruption Trial

BROWN.jpg
Ryan Benk
/
WJCT News

Updated at 6 p.m.

Former Congresswoman Corrine Brown’s chief of staff Ronnie Simmons told prosecutors Wednesday Brown was in control of cash flowing from sham charity One Door for Education.

Brown’s defense is trying to argue Simmons — not Brown — was behind a fraud worth hundreds of thousands of dollars.

Simmons took the stand in day six of Brown’s federal fraud trial and told the court she instructed him to withdraw money from One Door’s account for her expenses.

He also said he often gave the cash directly to Brown in his office in addition to depositing the funds into her personal bank account.

Prosecutors asked Simmons why he didn’t decline the Congresswoman’s requests, to which he replied, “You don't really tell her no.”

Simmons first met Brown in the 1980s while a student at the University of Florida, where he earned a bachelor’s degree in agribusiness. Simmons was dating the former congresswoman’s daughter Shantrel Brown at the time.

Although Simmons and Brown’s daughter later broke up, he stayed friends with her and her mother, eventually working for Corrine Brown’s travel agency before being hired by Brown after she was elected to the Florida Legislature. He then ran her first congressional campaign in 1992 and was subsequently hired as her chief of staff.

Slowly, Simmons began expanding his role in Brown’s office, functioning as the de facto treasurer for multiple political action committees connected to Brown. Simmons testified shortly after Brown’s election to Congress that he was in possession of the checkbook for Florida Delivers PAC and began forging the signature of treasurer Gloria Simmons, who is not related Ronnie Simmons, and give the checks directly to Brown.

Simmons told the court events for Brown were paid for by partnering with bona fide nonprofits before he came in contact with Carla Wiley and One Door for Education. Simmons said he was drawn to using One Door as a funding source for the events because he could “control it.” Wiley, who was the group’s president, was dating Simmons at the time. She turned over the defunct nonprofit’s checkbook and debit card to Simmons.

Simmons also said it was Brown who made first contact with potential One Door donors and he only followed up with them to ensure they made good on their promises to give. Over time, Simmons made 82 withdrawals totaling more than $60,000. He said the bulk of that sum went directly to Brown, but he kept some of the cash for himself. The rest of the more than $800,000

One Door raised went to directly to Wiley, Simmons, Brown and $330,000 paid for nine lavish events between 2012 and 2015.

Brown’s defense lawyer James Smith then worked to punch holes in Simmons’ credibility by getting him to admit he had used some One Door money to pay for a Miami vacation without her knowledge.

Simmons also admitted he lied to Brown, donors and FBI agents multiple times before, during and after the investigation. Simmons has pleaded guilty to some related charges, but inked a deal with the government that could mean 17 of his original 19 charges are dropped.

Smith also got Simmons to admit he told his client he was being “pressured” to testify by prosecutors. Simmons told Brown he was worried investigators could charge his sister Monica Isom or Brown’s daughter Shantrel Brown.

Isom began drawing a paycheck from Brown’s office in 2005, though she rarely worked and Simmons used much of that salary for his own expenses, including a boat loan.

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