JACKSONVILLE, Fla. (AP) — Former U.S. Rep Corrine Brown's ex-chief of staff testified on Wednesday that he gave her a steady stream of blank checks and cash from the account of a purported scholarship fund for poor kids that federal prosecutors say she used to fund a lavish lifestyle, including parties in her own honor and shopping trips.
Elias "Ronnie" Simmons testified in Brown's federal fraud trial, saying the congresswoman ordered him over the years to transfer thousands of dollars raised for the One Door for Education Foundation to her personal bank accounts.
In a plea deal, Simmons pleaded guilty to two related counts and agreed to testify.
Simmons said One Door started off as a way to raise money to fund a reception held during the Congressional Black Caucus Foundation meetings in Washington. At the time, he was dating One Door's president, Carla Wiley, who had closed it down after it failed to raise enough money.
Soon, however, federal prosecutors say its bank account was reopened and it became a personal slush fund for the congresswoman, Simmons and Wiley, who has also pleaded guilty.
On dozens of occasions, Simmons said he was told to take out of One Door's account the maximum $800 from an ATM near his house and deposit hundreds of it in Brown's personal account. Sometimes he kept some for himself.
"It would depend. If she asked me for $500, I may have taken out eight and kept three," Simmons said.
Simmons testified that they used One Door for fundraising because, as a registered 501(c)(3) organization, there were no limits on the amount it could raise, unlike political action committees or campaign fundraising accounts.
From 2012 to 2016, federal prosecutors say, Brown and Simmons raised more than $800,000 for One Door from donors who thought they were helping children, but instead the money went to fund a lavish lifestyle. The purchases included a trip on a private jet to Washington where Brown and donors used a luxury box to watch an NFL game, a Beyonce concert and trips.
Only $1,200 was ever given out for scholarships.
Simmons said that when he forged blank One Door checks to give to Brown, the exchange would always take place in person in her office.
Federal prosecutors said the checks were then often filled out by Brown to a public relations agency of her part-time staffer, Von Alexander. Alexander testified previously that she would then make checks out to cash, and deposit the money into Brown's personal accounts.
Assistant U.S. Attorney A. Tysen Duva asked Simmons why he didn't just write the checks out to his boss directly.
"That would have been too obvious," he said
Duva read through a list of expensive One Door events — including a barbecue at the Democratic National Convention in Charlotte, NC and a golf tournament at TPC Sawgrass in Florida — that totaled to more than $300,000.
"Any scholarships raised at either of those events?" Duva asked. "No," Simmons said.
The government also says Brown repeatedly lied on financial disclosure forms mandated by ethics laws, and her taxes. She claimed thousands in donations as tax write offs the government said she never made, including to her own church and One Door.
Brown's attorney James Smith has said that Simmons was the mastermind behind the scheme, and that he was taking advantage of an aging lawmaker who trusted him with her personal and professional affairs. She has pleaded not guilty to all charges.
But prosecutors have painted Brown as a stern, intimidating boss whose employees knew that "no" was never a proper answer to her requests.
Simmons said all of the cash deposits made from One Door into Brown's personal accounts were done so at her direction.
At the same time, Simmons was also using the cash for trips with his ex-girlfriend, Wiley, and other personal expenses.
His plea deal was also the end of a 30-year personal and professional relationship with Brown, whom he described as a mother figure. At times Brown dabbed tissue at her eyes as he testified.
It all ended in early 2016, when FBI agents arrived at his home in Maryland with lots of questions about One Door.
"It was pretty much an 'aha moment,'" Simmons said, describing the FBI visit. "I knew that there was a problem. Potentially a big problem."
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