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Brown Trial: Former Congresswoman Takes Stand In Her Own Defense

Gregory Todaro
Credit Gregory Todaro / WJCT News

Updated 11 a.m.

There was an unexpected recess in former Congresswoman Corrine Brown’s federal corruption trial in Jacksonville Friday morning after she broke down and had to be escorted from the witness stand. 

Prosecutors were questioning Brown about her shopping when she yelled out, “They’re trying to destroy my life,” and the trial was temporarily paused. Her testimony is expected to wrap up and jury deliberations should begin Monday.

Original story

Former Congresswoman Corrine Brown took the stand in her defense Thursday, telling the court she was so focused on serving her constituents and working in Washington, D.C. that she didn’t notice her chief of staff Ronnie Simmons was stealing money from sham charity One Door for Education and depositing the proceeds into her account.

The prosecution argues it was Brown who was the mastermind of the scheme, not Simmons.

But she told the court she didn’t steal any money.

“That’s not who I am,” Brown said. “I am someone who deeply cares about her community.”

Simmons testified Wednesday that every time he took money from One Door’s account and deposited it into her account, it was because the former 12-term congresswoman instructed him to do so. Simmons said he often took cash out and handed it to Brown in person.

Brown said she thought that money was legitimate reimbursement for official travel. She said she also thought the money Simmons took was for the same thing.

“I did not know Ronnie was taking money that was not his reimbursement,” she said.

Brown was often emotional when speaking about Simmons. Defense attorney James Smith, who had to keep Brown on track throughout her testimony, asked her to explain how she first met Simmons and how she cared for him.

“I love him; he’s my boy. How he did this, I just don’t know,” she said.

When pressed, Brown admitted that had she known Simmons was stealing she would have fired him. She also described how hurt she felt upon finding out Simmons had pleaded guilty to charges.

Contrary to what the parade of donors the prosecution called said, Brown told the court she never told them One Door was solely organized for awarding scholarships. She also denied having any involvement in the planning of nine events between 2012 and 2014 that cost the charity $330,000. Instead she said a committee of volunteers, usually spearheaded by Simmons, was in charge of planning, creating and sending out fliers.

Before resting Thursday, prosecutors called IRS agent Shawn Batsch to the stand. The investigator told the court he followed a five-year money trail connected to Brown.

Brown also failed to declare around $142,000 in income between 2009 and 2014, Batsch testified.

He also told prosecutors Brown’s shopping habits would’ve put her in massive debt, had she not received the untaxed income.

Using tax returns and audits, Batsch said he could only verify $1,346 in charitable giving between 2009 and 2014, although Brown said she’d given thousands of dollars yearly to various nonprofits and churches.

Two of financial managers of area churches testified the same day that they couldn’t find any record of donations Brown claimed throughout those years.

Brown’s lawyer James Smith argued many of Brown’s church donations were untraceable because they were cash.

Brown has pleaded not guilty to 22 counts of fraud and related charges.

Listen to this story on Redux

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

EDITOR'S NOTE: This article has been updated with information from Brown's testimony Friday. 

Copyright 2020 WJCT News 89.9. To see more, visit WJCT News 89.9.

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Ryan Benk
Ryan Benk is originally from Miami, Florida and came to Tallahassee to attend Florida State University. He worked on Miami Dade College’s Arts and Literature Magazine- Miamibiance Magazine and has published poetry and a short film called “ The Writer.” He’s currently working as the Newsroom’s Researcher while finishing his Creative Writing Bachelor’s Degree at Florida State University. When he’s not tracking down news, Ryan likes watching films, writing fiction and poetry, and exploring Florida.
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