Corrine Brown Co-conspirators Argue For Light Sentences at Hearing

Nov 15, 2017

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 are making their case in federal court Wednesday for what punishment they should receive for their involvement in the scheme.

Carla Wiley and Ronnie Simmons both pleaded guilty to fraud charges and testified against Brown at her federal corruption trial.

Lawyers for Wiley and Simmons have argued that their cooperation should merit either probation and community service or home detention.

Prosecutors filed documents acknowledging the help Wiley and Simmons provided in the case against Brown, but saying the two should get reduced sentences that still include prison time.

Judge Timothy Corrigan said Wednesday that the pair's cooperation will factor into his sentencing, and that he's considering around two years for Wiley and three years for Simmons, but he could decide on more or less depending on Wednesday's testimony.

Wiley cried on the stand Wednesday, saying she has looked forward to having a chance to publicly apologize for her role in taking the money.

Neither Wiley nor Simmons will learn their fate until Dec. 4, when Corrigan will hand down his sentences for Wiley, Simmons and Brown.

Founder admits 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 testifies

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 believed 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.

Brown attorney watching

Brown's attorney, James Smith, was at the hearing, telling our News4Jax partner that he'll 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.

Getting the money back

Prosecutors have filed forfeiture motions seeking hundreds of thousands of dollars from the three co-conspirators. 

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.