Jason Dearen and Curt Anderson, ABC News, July 8, 2016
U.S. Rep. Corrine Brown of Florida and her chief of staff pleaded not guilty Friday to multiple fraud charges and other federal offenses in a grand jury indictment unsealed after an investigation into what prosecutors call a phony charity turned into a personal slush fund.
Brown, a 69-year-old Democrat, and Chief of Staff Elias “Ronnie” Simmons, 50, entered pleas in Jacksonville federal court on charges of mail and wire fraud, conspiracy, obstruction and filing of false tax returns.
She has represented a Jacksonville-based congressional district since 1993–one of the first three African-Americans elected to Congress from Florida since Reconstruction–and is seeking re-election in a newly redrawn district.
The 24-count indictment comes after an investigation into the purported charity One Door for Education Foundation Inc., which federal prosecutors say was billed as a way to give scholarships to poor students but instead filled the coffers of Brown and her associates.
“Congresswoman Brown and her chief of staff are alleged to have used the congresswoman’s official position to solicit over $800,000 in donations to a supposed charitable organization, only to use that organization as a personal slush fund,” Assistant U.S. Attorney General Leslie Caldwell, chief of the Justice Department’s criminal division, said in a statement.
According to the indictment, more than $200,000 in One Door funds were used to pay for events hosted by Brown or held in her honor, including a golf tournament, lavish receptions during an annual Washington conference and the use of luxury boxes for a Beyonce concert and an NFL game between the Washington Redskins and Jacksonville Jaguars.
One Door money was also used for such things are repairs to Brown’s car and vacations to locations such as the Bahamas, Miami Beach and Los Angeles. In addition, House of Representatives money was used to pay a “close family member” of Simmons identified as “Person C” more than $735,000 between 2001 and 2016 for a job in Brown’s office that involved little or no work, according to the indictment. Simmons allegedly benefited from some of that money.
Potential donors attending the tournament received letters from One Door with Brown’s signature and official House seal asking them to give from $125 up to $20,000 to One Door, according to Wiley’s plea agreement.
The invitation said the donations would benefit a scholarship fund for the Jacksonville chapter of the Conference of Minority Transportation Officials, or COMTO, and other charities. Authorities say none of the charities received any of the money raised.