Jacksonville, FL – Congresswoman Corrine Brown and her chief of staff were indicted today for their roles in a conspiracy and fraud scheme involving a fraudulent education charity.
Brown, 69, of Jacksonville, Florida, and her chief of staff, Elias “Ronnie” Simmons, 50, of Laurel, Maryland, were charged today in a 24-count indictment with participating in a conspiracy to commit mail and wire fraud, multiple counts of mail and wire fraud, concealing material facts on required financial disclosure forms, theft of government property, obstruction of the due administration of the internal revenue laws, and filing false tax returns.
U.S. Attorney A. Lee Bentley III, Assistant Attorney General Leslie R. Caldwell of the Justice Department’s Criminal Division, Special Agent in Charge Michelle Klimt of the FBI’s Jacksonville Division, and Special Agent in Charge Kim Lappin of the Internal Revenue Service-Criminal Investigation (IRS-CI) Tampa Field Office made the announcement.
“Our Office is committed to ferreting out and prosecuting all forms of corruption and fraud, regardless of who the offender is,” said U.S. Attorney Bentley. “In our nation, no one is above the law.”
“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,” said Assistant Attorney General Caldwell. “Corruption erodes the public’s trust in our entire system of representative government. One of the department’s most important responsibilites is to root out corruption at all levels of government and to bring wrongdoers to justice.”
“Corrupt public officials undermine the integrity of our government and violate the public’s trust,” said Michelle S. Klimt, Special Agent in Charge of the FBI Jacksonville Division. “That is why public corruption is the FBI’s top criminal priority. It is incredibly disappointing that an elected official, who took an oath year after year to serve others, would exploit the needs of children and abuse the charitable hearts of constituents to advance her own personal and political agendas and deliver them with virtually nothing.”
“The defendants are alleged to have committed a multitude of criminal violations, including fraudulently receiving and using hundreds of thousands of dollars in contributions meant for a nonprofit organization for their own personal and professional benefit,” said Richard Weber, Chief, IRS Criminal Investigation. “The American public expects and deserves equitable enforcement of our tax laws.”
The indictment alleges that between late 2012 and early 2016, Brown and Simmons participated in a conspiracy and fraud scheme involving One Door for Education – Amy Anderson Scholarship Fund (One Door) in which the 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. According to the indictment, Brown and Simmons allegedly solicited donations from individuals and corporate entities that Brown knew by virtue of her position in the U.S. House of Representatives, many of whom the defendants led to believe that One Door was a properly-registered 501(c)(3) non-profit organization, when, in fact, it was not.
Contrary to the defendants’ representations, the indictment alleges that Brown, Simmons and Carla Wiley, the president of One Door, among others, used the vast majority of One Door donations for their personal and professional benefit, including tens of thousands of dollars in cash deposits that Simmons made to Brown’s personal bank accounts. In one instance, Simmons is alleged to have deposited $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 she owed. Likewise, the indictment alleges that Brown and Simmons used the outside consulting company of one of Brown’s employees to funnel One Door funds to Brown and others for their personal use. 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 in Ponte Vedra Beach, Florida; lavish receptions during an annual conference in Washington, D.C.; the use of a luxury box during a concert in Washington, D.C.; and the use of a luxury box during an NFL game in the Washington, D.C., area.
Despite raising over $800,000 in donations, the indictment alleges that One Door was associated with only two scholarships totaling $1,200 that were awarded to students to cover expenses related to attending a college or university.
Simmons is also charged with theft of government property based on the misuse of his position as Brown’s chief of staff to obtain congressional employment for a close relative. Between 2001 and early 2016, Simmons’ relative allegedly received approximately $735,000 in government salary payments despite performing no known work for the U.S. House of Representatives. The indictment alleges that between 2009 and late 2015, Simmons diverted over $80,000 of his relative’s government salary for his personal benefit, including through transfers to his personal bank accounts, payments on his personal credit cards and loan payments on his boat.
Simmons and Brown are also charged with failing to disclose, among other things, the reportable income they received from One Door and the salary payments that Simmons diverted from his relative’s government employment on required financial disclosure forms submitted to the U.S. House of Representatives and made available to the general public.
Brown is also charged with engaging in tax obstruction between 2008 and 2014 and, in certain years, filing false returns based on her repeated failure to report income from substantial cash deposits to her personal bank accounts and her repeated deduction of inflated and fabricated charitable donations. According to the indictment, in various years, Brown claimed deductions on her tax returns based on false donations she claimed she made to One Door, as well as to local churches and non-profit organizations in the Jacksonville area.
Wiley, the president of One Door, pleaded guilty for her involvement in the scheme on March 3, 2016.
The charges and allegations contained in an indictment are merely accusations. The defendants are presumed innocent until and unless proven guilty.
The FBI and IRS-CI are investigating the case. Deputy Chief Eric G. Olshan of the Criminal Division’s Public Integrity Section and Assistant U.S. Attorneys A. Tysen Duva and Michael J. Coolican of the Middle District of Florida are prosecuting the case.
UPDATE: Brown and Simmons will make their initial appearances in Jacksonville today before United States Magistrate Judge James R. Klindt at 1:00 p.m. (Courtroom 5-D).