All of the arguments have been laid out in the federal fraud trial of now-former Congresswoman Corrine Brown, and the jury is deliberating the 22 counts she is facing.
With all of the testimony and evidence that’s been presented, understanding the different charges can become a muddled experience. Action News Jax news partner WOKV is breaking each down so you can better understand the verdicts once they come in.
Brown is one of three people that have been implicated in this case. Her Chief of Staff Ronnie Simmons and the President of One Door For Education Carla Wiley have both pleaded guilty for their roles. Prosecutors say the three solicited more than $800,000 in donations to One Door- which they promoted as a non-profit, although it was never properly registered- and used that money for their personal expenses and “lavish” events instead.
Count 1: Conspiracy to commit mail and wire fraud
This count builds off the subsequent ones, which deal with specific instances of alleged mail or wire fraud. It’s designed to encompass the greater “scheme”- that Brown and the others intentionally misled donors while soliciting their money, by promoting One Door as a non-profit and telling the donors their money would go toward scholarship or other charitable purposes. Instead, Wiley has admitted to siphoning some of that money for her personal expenses, and separately Simmons admits to profiting off the donations as well- but says many of the transactions he performed with One Door funds were at Brown’s direction.
This scheme included leveraging Brown’s position as a Congresswoman to solicit the donations and using her image to promote the validity of One Door, including having several photos of Brown on the group’s website.
Brown continues to maintain that any time she solicited money for One Door, she did so believing they were doing legitimate charitable work. She and Simmons further testified that they always intended for their events to raise money for scholarships, but Simmons added that the events themselves were always so expensive that they weren’t successful.
The alleged conspiracy included emails, FedEx mailings and other communication that crossed state lines or involved federal delivery, leading to the mail and wire fraud charges.
In addition to the transactions detailed in specific charges below, the conspiracy count includes the tens of thousands of dollars Simmons withdrew from the One Door account and deposited in Brown’s account- allegedly at her direction. It also involves the roughly $330,000 in One Door funds that apparently went to hosting events that were organized by or honored Brown.
Brown testified that One Door is one of many organizations she worked with and that she was not very familiar with their stated purpose or how the group is run. She told the court that when she would personally raise money, she was always seeking to do it first for her campaign fund, Friends of Corrine Brown. Prosecutors showed through witness testimony and documents, though, that One Door is one of a small group that Brown would actively solicit for, in addition to Friends of Corrine Brown, her legal fund, and her PAC Florida Leadership Delivers.
Brown additionally says she increasingly relied on Simmons and some of her staff to handle her finances and personal affairs. She says Simmons took advantage of that trust.
Count 2: Aiding and abetting mail fraud
Along with the check referenced in Count 3, this check for $5,000 from Picerne Development to One Door was solicited by Brown to specifically benefit the alleged non-profit’s charitable work. Donor John Picerne and his Director of Government Affairs, Don Miller, testified that they believed donations from the company would have an impact on children specifically, with Picerne himself very passionate about charitable causes involving children.
This check was sent through FedEx on June 3rd, 2013 from Picerne Development in Altamonte Springs, FL, to Simmons’ home in Laurel, MD.
Count 3: Aiding and abetting mail fraud
This July 2, 2013 FedEx mailing from Altamonte Springs, FL to Simmons’ home in Laurel, MD is similar to the solicitation referenced in Count 2. Picerne Development gave another $5,000 to One Door, following a solicitation from Brown, according to testimony.
Count 4: Aiding and abetting mail fraud
Picerne Development wrote a check for $28,700 to One Door in September 2013. As with the others, it was FedExed from Altamonte Springs, FL to Simmons’ home in Laurel Maryland.
While the company’s Director of Government Affairs Don Miller wasn’t involved in the solicitation and, therefore, wasn’t sure what the money would have been for, prosecutors pointed out that this came the same month as an annual reception Brown would host in conjunction with the Congressional Black Caucus Foundation’s Annual Legislative Conference. The reception was hosted by One Door, and prosecutors say many donors who contributed to the group expecting the money to go to charity, actually had their donations poured in to these events, which cost tens of thousands of dollars each year.
The defense counters that, while there was no scholarship money raised at these events, they provided valuable networking opportunities and always sought to boost donations.
Count 5: Aiding and abetting mail fraud
Brown hosted an event called “Jacksonville Goes to Washington” in late 2014, wherein a small group of people were flown with her on a private plane to a Jaguars-Redskins game in DC. The group then watched the game in a luxury suite, and everyone was flown back on the private plane- although Brown did not make the return trip. Both Brown and Simmons say the group was potential One Door donors, and they were hoping to solicit money during the trip, although that didn’t happen.
Jack Hanania committed to a $7,000 donation to One Door and was then invited on this trip. He testified that he believed his donation would go toward the charitable purpose of One Door, and that he was invited to attend the game after the fact. Prosecutors say Hanania’s money actually went toward some of the event costs, despite the commitment that the money would be for charity. The defense argued it was made clear to Hanania at the time that his money was payment for the trip.
The check was sent via FedEx from Jacksonville to Virginia. Count 14 of the indictment is also connected to this charge.
The man who donated the plane, Stephen Bittel, says he was told the plane was going to be transporting potential donors to a fundraising event. There was no money raised for One Door, and Hanania says he didn’t participate in any conversations about the group while he was there.
Count 6: Aiding and abetting mail fraud
Bright House Networks wrote a check for $10,000 to One Door for a table at the Phoenix Awards dinner at the 2014 Congressional Black Caucus Foundation’s Annual Legislative Conference, following an invoice One Door sent to them. Marva Brown Johnson, with Bright House, says she had been inspired by Brown to attend the event.
The CBCF says they received no money from One Door, though. Simmons testified that Brown was able to get seats at tables as she needed through corporations who bought tables and donated back seats they weren’t using. Lawmakers were also able to purchase a table at a reduced price. Simmons says they got Brown Johnson a seat through those means, not through purchasing a table with her check.
This mail fraud charge deals with the $10,000 check being sent from Brown Johnson, in Maitland, FL.
Count 7: Aiding and abetting mail fraud
Brown solicited a $10,000 donation from Richard Lipsky during a trip to tour his hospital facility in New Jersey. Lipsky testified that Brown was seeking the money to use to print a commemorative edition of Onyx magazine, but that she was unsure who to make the check out to, so Lipsky left the “pay to” line blank, but put “printing” in the memo line.
The check was then sent via FedEx from Brown’s Congressional office in DC to Brown’s District office in Jacksonville, to the attention of part-time staffer Von Alexander. The check was made out to The Alexander Agency, and Alexander testified she was instructed by Brown to write checks to cash and make cash deposits over the next several days. Alexander says Brown told her to deposit $3,000 with Brown and $1,000 with Shantrel on September 22, 2014; deposit $2,000 with Shantrel September 23; and deposit $1,000 with Brown and $1,000 with Shantrel on September 29.
Simmons was not on the trip where Brown solicited this check.
This count deals specifically with the mailing of this check from Brown’s office in DC to the District office in Jacksonville. It is related to Count 15.
Count 8: Aiding and abetting mail fraud
In September 2015, Simmons emailed Marva Brown Johnson, an employee of Bright House, with an invoice for a $10,000 donation to One Door “For Annual Student Scholarships”. The email, showed during testimony, included Simmons telling Brown Johnson she had made the day “a good day” with the donation.
Simmons emailed Brown Johnson a FedEx tracking label with which to send the donation. The mailing went from Orlando, FL to Simmons’ home in Laurel, MD. Brown Johnson used that label to send the donation, leading to the mail charge count.
Count 16 and Count 17, which are wire fraud charges, also relate to this transaction.
Count 9: Aiding and abetting wire fraud
Simmons and Jessica Lazzara Wynne- on behalf of the Lazzara Family Foundation- emailed back and forth in June 2013 to follow up on a conversation between Brown and Gasper Lazzara. The email indicated Lazzara had agreed to pay $5,000 to reimburse Brown for out of pocket expenses connected to a computer drive for a service project she was involved in. Lazzara Wynne told Simmons they could not give directly to Brown, because they could only donate to 501(c)(3) groups. She had further learned One Door For Education- where Simmons told her to write the check to- was not a registered non-profit either.
Simmons then told Lazzara Wynne to make the check out to the Community Rehabilitation Center instead. She emailed back, confused about the reason the money would go to that group and saying Lazzara wanted to be sure his money was going where he promised it would. Ultimately, Lazzara Wynne did not send the money.
Prosecutors say Brown did not actually pay out of pocket for those computers, with testimony showing the cost was covered by another person involved with the service project. That person testified that there were ancillary costs with the computers, including equipping them with software and accessories, but there was no direct testimony or evidence showing how much that cost or who covered it.
Count 10: Aiding and abetting wire fraud
A One Door check for $3,055.16 was made out to The Alexander Agency, a business of part-time Brown staffer Von Alexander. Alexander then made out a $3,000 check from her business to cash, and ultimately deposited $2,000 in cash in to Brown’s Bank of America personal account at a branch in Jacksonville.
Alexander testified that the check was supposed to cover the balance Simmons owed at the hotel where several people- including Brown- had stayed for a golf tournament Brown hosted at TPC Sawgrass. Brown told Alexander that the cash she was receiving from this transaction was because she had taken some money out of her own pocket, and was seeking reimbursement.
Count 11: Aiding and abetting wire fraud
Brown’s staffer Von Alexander wasn’t completely sure how she had received the check connected to this charge, saying many times she got them from Brown, but there would occasionally be different elements filled in.
Alexander deposited a $2,086.10 One Door check in to The Alexander Agency’s bank account. Because of the way the different banks operate, that check was funded through a wire transfer that crossed state lines, according to a stipulation agreed to by both sides in this trial.
Alexander then wrote a $500 check to cash from the business and deposited $400 in to Brown’s account. The next day, Alexander wrote another check to cash from her business for $1,250- depositing the same amount with Brown.
Brown again told Alexander that she was getting reimbursements for the invitational golf tournament through this check, according to Alexander’s testimony. Alexander asked for supporting documents, and she says Brown told her to get it from Simmons. Alexander says she rarely received any supporting documents from Simmons.
Count 12: Aiding and abetting wire fraud
Alexander deposited a One Door check for $2,500 in to The Alexander Agency’s bank account on September 3, 2013. A few days later, she wrote a check to cash off the business for $1,800. $900 in cash was deposited in Brown’s account and $900 in cash was deposited with her daughter, Shantrel Brown.
This check had “consultant” in the memo line. While Alexander says she got the check from Simmons, she testified that Brown instructed her how to fill it out and how to work the cash transactions and deposits.
Count 13: Aiding and abetting wire fraud
On September 9, 2013, a $2,000 One Door check was deposited with The Alexander Agency. Within a few days, Alexander wrote a $1,700 check to cash from the business, and deposited $1,000 cash in to Brown’s account. She then deposited $500 in Shantrel Brown’s account as well.
This is another check where Alexander says she was given a signed blank check by Brown, who then instructed her how to deposit it.
Count 14: Aiding and abetting wire fraud
This charge is closely connected to Count 5, where a donor- Jack Hanania- was solicited for a $7,000 donation to One Door, and then taken on a trip to a Jags-Redskins game in the DC area. Simmons emailed Hanania a FedEx label to use to send the check. This wire fraud count deals with the email of that label.
Count 15: Aiding and abetting wire fraud
This charge is connected to Count 7, where Brown is accused of soliciting a $10,000 check from a donor to use for printing a commemorative edition of a magazine, but instead funneling the money through the business of a Jacksonville staffer and pocketing much of it. The wire fraud charge stems from the deposit of that $10,000 check in to the bank account of the staffer’s business, The Alexander Agency.
Count 16: Aiding and abetting wire fraud
This wire fraud charge relates to Count 8 and Count 17 of the indictment. Simmons emailed Marva Brown Johnson an invoice seeking a $10,000 donation to One Door for “Annual Student Scholarships”. This solicitation and invoice is the backing for this wire fraud count.
Count 17: Aiding and abetting wire fraud
This wire fraud count also relates to Count 8 of the indictment, as well as Count 16. Simmons emailed Marva Brown Johnson a FedEx label with which to send a $10,000 donation from her employer, Bright House, to One Door For Education.
Count 19: Scheme to conceal material facts
This charge is something the judge deliberated at length with attorneys during a hearing Friday, after the jury had been sent home. It includes several years of Brown’s financial disclosure forms from her time in Congress, where prosecutors alleged she underreported her income by not disclosing money she received from One Door and other means. The financial disclosures are required of sitting Congresspersons and some senior staff, in order to provide transparency to the general public about their elected officials’ liabilities and assets.
When the judge questioned prosecutors why multiple years of disclosures were included under one count, prosecutors responded that this charge doesn’t deal with any specific year’s filing, but rather the greater scheme.
While acknowledging that there is not a lot of case law to support how they’re interpreting this charge- which they say generally deals with an issue like lying to the FBI- prosecutors allege that the false financial filings are just a few components of a larger scheme Brown led to earn money, conceal it, and not disclose it to the general public.
The judge questioned not only the legal basis for the charge, but whether the money from One Door would be considered “earned income” under the disclosure law. Ultimately, he let the charge stand, but told attorneys he would be willing to revisit it after the verdict, if needed.
Count 21: Corrupt endeavor to obstruct and impede the due administration of the internal revenue laws
Similar to the relationship between the mail fraud and wire fraud charges and the more broad conspiracy charge, prosecutors have filed this count as a sort of umbrella over the subsequent false income tax return charges.
The government alleges that Brown actively sought to impede the IRS by concealing some of her income and inflating charitable donations. This count includes Brown’s alleged actions- from giving her staff figures on charitable contributions that were higher than what she actually donated, to instructing her staff not to include some receipts, to verifying false information directly to her CPA.
Brown has admitted mistakes in these returns, but says that any problem was not intentional criminal wrongdoing. She says she was so consumed with her Congressional work, that she didn’t take the time to pay attention to her personal finances and office management. She denied intentionally misleading anyone in regard to her contributions.
Count 22: Filing false individual income tax return
In every tax year, Brown reported income based solely on her House of Representatives salary and pension from her time in the Florida House. Prosecutors say Brown should have disclosed money she was receiving from One Door, although Brown testified that she didn’t realize she was getting money from the organization.
In addition to allegedly underreporting her income, Brown allegedly overreported her charitable contributions.
2012 is the first year Brown’s return did not include a receipt from Bethel Baptist, where she worships and contributes every year. The receipt was later found in a file kept by one of her staffers who would help with her tax returns. That staffer, Carolyn Chatman, says anything she did or did not include in the return was at Brown’s direction.
The Bethel Baptist donation Brown claimed was higher than what the receipt showed, by $280. Brown additionally claimed a $1,000 donation to New Destiny Christian Center, although their records show no contribution this year. Brown also claimed a $12,500 donation to One Door For Education, which is the first time the group surfaced on her returns.
A note initially claiming the donation on tax prep work papers show Simmons initially wrote the donation, but Brown’s tax preparer Dawn Wright documented that she verbally confirmed it with Brown herself as well.
Brown did not make any monetary donations to One Door in this tax year or any that followed.
Count 23: Filing false individual income tax return
Tax Year 2013 again allegedly underreported Brown’s income and inflated charitable giving.
While Brown would always wait until tax filing deadlines were maxed out to actually file the return, this year specifically prosecutors showed communication with the tax preparer and Brown’s staff expressing frustration about trying to finalize everything in time.
Donations claimed to Bethel Baptist, One Door, and New Destiny Christian Center all were not supported by receipts. New Destiny and Bethel Baptist both testified that their records do not match Brown’s claims.- receipts show a $3,445 contribution from Brown to Bethel Baptist, while Brown claimed $6,100; and receipts show a $50 contribution to New Destiny, while Brown claimed $2,500. She further claimed $5,000 toward One Door.
Count 24: Filing false individual income tax return
Simmons admits to signing Brown’s return this year, 2014, because he says Brown was flying at the time and they were down to the wire to get the return submitted.
This was another year where Brown allegedly overstated her contributions to a number of entities. Brown claimed a $3,500 donation to the Clara White Mission, but that group’s records showed nothing. Bethel Baptist’s records showed Brown contributed $4,378, but Brown claimed $7,200. There was a $6,500 claimed donation to the Community Rehabilitation Center, which the center had no record of, and another $2,500 donation to New Destiny that also wasn’t backed by any record. This is all in addition to another $7,000 donation to One Door, which prosecutors say never existed.
Brown’s tax preparer Dawn Wright testified that she was becoming uncomfortable with how much documentation was falling off over the years, but there is ultimately no requirement that donations be backed with documentation, so she took Brown’s word.
DAY 5: Ronnie Simmons' attorney tells client, ‘You're sacrificing yourself'
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