Politics

Aide to ex-congresswoman pleads guilty to federal charges, will cooperate against her

In this Aug. 30, 2016, photo, U.S. Rep. Corrine Brown makes her concession speech at her campaign headquarters in Jacksonville after losing to opponent Al Lawson on election night.
In this Aug. 30, 2016, photo, U.S. Rep. Corrine Brown makes her concession speech at her campaign headquarters in Jacksonville after losing to opponent Al Lawson on election night. AP

The former chief of staff to ex-Rep. Corrine Brown of Jacksonville pleaded guilty Wednesday to mail fraud and theft of government property in a fraudulent scheme that stole hundreds of thousands of dollars from unsuspecting scholarship donors.

Elias “Ronnie” Simmons, who now lives in Laurel, Maryland, accepted a plea deal with federal prosecutors in Florida in exchange for providing information about Brown’s alleged role in the corruption.

Simmons told prosecutors that $200,000 raised for a virtually nonexistent charitable fund called One Door for Education was diverted to pay for a golf tournament in Ponte Vedra Beach, lavish receptions in Washington, a luxury box at a Beyonce concert in Washington and a box at an NFL game between the Washington Redskins and Jacksonville Jaguars.

Simmons also acknowledged having received over $735,000 in government salary payments over 15 years for an unnamed relative who was ostensibly on Brown’s staff but did no known work.

Brown, 70, represented Florida’s Fifth Congressional District for 24 years, from 1995 until last month. Despite the pending criminal charges, Brown sought re-election but was defeated by Al Lawson in the Aug. 30 primary. Lawson went on to win the November general election and now represents the Jacksonville-based district.

Brown has maintained her innocence. Her trial is set to begin April 24.

Simmons, however, pleaded guilty to one count of conspiracy to commit mail and wire fraud and one count of theft of government property in an appearance before U.S. Magistrate Judge James R. Klindt of the Middle District of Florida.

“The two defendants and others acting on their behalf solicited more than $800,000 in charitable donations based on false representations that the donations would be used for college scholarships and school computer drives, among other things,” the Justice Department said in a statement.

Donors were “led to believe that One Door was a properly registered 501(c)(3) non-profit organization when, in fact, it was not,” the DOJ said.

The announcement of Simmons’ plea deal was made by Acting Assistant General Kenneth A. Blanco of DOJ’s criminal divison; U.S. Attorney A. Lee Bentley III of the Middle District of Florida; Special Agent in Charge Charles P. Spencer of the FBI’s Jacksonville office, and Special Agent in Charge Mary Hammond of the Internal Revenue Service’s criminal-investigation in Tampa.

“In one instance, Simmons admitted depositing $2,100 in One Door funds into Brown’s personal bank account the same day that Brown wrote a check for a similar amount to pay taxes to the IRS,” the DOJ said.

Despite raising more than $800,000 in donations, One Door awarded only two scholarships totaling $1,200 to students, according to the Justice Department.

@jamesmartinrose

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