“Lying, cheating and stealing” -- that’s what opening statements for both sides in Congresswoman Corrine Brown’s federal fraud trial centered around on Wednesday.
The central question: Is she the one who did it?
Or, was it her chief of staff Ronnie Simmons, as her defense attorney claims?
Simmons’ multiple romantic attachments came up during opening statements.
The attorneys brought up that Simmons used to date the former Congresswoman’s daughter Shantrel Brown and One Door for Education President Carla Wiley.
Wiley and Simmons have already pleaded guilty to charges related to using that charity – which the prosecution calls “bogus” -- as a personal slush fund.
“[Brown] had the privilege and the opportunity to serve… We wish that was the end of the story… Sadly, it’s not… There’s another side: Corruption, greed and a significant entitlement attitude,” the U.S. Attorney’s Office lead prosecutor Tysen Duva told the jury.
Duva said Simmons and Wiley came up with the idea to fund weekly lavish parties for Brown using donations to One Door for Education.
At one party, Duva said there was a drink called “the Queen Corrine.”
At another, a $750 birthday cake for her daughter.
Duva said Simmons regularly withdrew the maximum daily amount of $800 out of One Door for Education’s account, and then deposited the cash into Brown’s account.
Duva told the jury Brown never declared any money deposited into her account from One Door for Education in her taxes or congressional financial disclosures.
He also said the former congresswoman lied about how much she donated to churches and used it as a tax write-off.
Duva described Brown spending $10,000 from One Door for Education to go on a shopping spree with her daughter on Beverly Hills’ Rodeo Drive.
Duva said Simmons will testify that he frequently gave Brown blank checks from One Door for Education’s account and forged Wiley’s signature on them.
Brown’s defense attorney James Smith told the jury Simmons took advantage of the congresswoman and betrayed her.
“There are two questions that will guide you throughout this trial: who is Ronnie Simmons? And can you trust him?” said Smith.
Smith argued that Simmons took advantage of the Congresswoman as she aged, taking control of her personal finances and travel arrangements.
Smith also argued the events mentioned by the prosecution were not lavish parties, but community development events where Brown helped constituents.
Smith said, as Brown aged, she relied on Simmons to handle her finances, her travel, and making sure she complied with campaign finance laws.
"Ronnie was playing her for a fool," Smith told the jury. "Don't let him fool you."
The prosecution called its first two witnesses after opening statements, a donor to One Door for Education and an FBI Special Agent.
The first witness was Jacksonville real estate developer John Picerne, who donated $10,000 to One Door for Education.
Picerne testified that Brown asked him to donate.
He said his donation was based on his trust and relationship with Brown.
FBI Special Agent Vanessa Stelly, who is assigned to the agency’s white collar crime squad, testified that One Door for Education was never registered in any state to solicit or receive donations.
The jury for Brown’s trial was finalized on Wednesday morning.
The jury is made up of seven men and five women.
The demographic make-up of the jury panel is five white men, three white women, one black man, two black women and one Hispanic man.
Four alternate jurors are also mixed into the jury panel, but they will not know they are alternates until jury deliberations begin.
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