Ronnie Simmons, former U.S. Rep. Corrine Brown’s longtime chief of staff, pleaded guilty Wednesday to a fraud conspiracy charge that strengthens the legal vise squeezing his indicted ex-boss.
Simmons, who pleaded guilty to just two of 19 charges he faced from a July indictment, also admitted to helping steal government money by creating a phantom job for an unnamed relative that cost the government about $735,000 over 15 years.
“If you plead guilty, there will be no trial of any kind,” U.S. Magistrate James Klindt told Simmons before agreeing during a Wednesday hearing to recommend a district judge accept the plea. The rest of the charges will be dismissed if the judge accepts the plea.
Simmons and Brown had been scheduled to go on trial in April, and Brown is still scheduled to face a federal district judge Thursday to discuss trial preparations.
The two were indicted last year on charges that involved enriching themselves on other people’s donations to a scholarship fund Brown supported, One Door for Education.
One Door’s president pleaded guilty last year to conspiracy to commit wire fraud, and prosecutors said the organization spent only $1,200 on scholarships despite collecting $800,000 in donations.
Simmons agreed to testify in Brown’s trial if he’s subpoenaed.
Simmons and Brown both faced the possibility of sentences totaling more than 350 years if they were convicted on all counts — 22 involving Brown, 19 naming Simmons — in the July indictment.
Under the plea deal, Simmons’ maximum sentence would be 30 years, but it will be months before court officials file a detailed report recommending an actual sentence.
When the indictment became public last year, prosecutors likened One Door’s money to a slush fund that was used by Brown, Simmons and One Door President Carla Wiley for expenses like travel and car repairs that had nothing to do with charity.
The plea agreement that Simmons, 51, signed this month described him playing a key role in One Door.
The agreement said he, Brown and people around the congresswoman did almost all of One Door’s fundraising, with Brown asking for money during private meetings with donors and Simmons emailing the next day to make sure people lived up to their pledges.
A lot of Brown’s requests were made when she asked for donations to her Friends of Corrine Brown political committee, her legal defense fund or another PAC, the agreement said.
Simmons’ attorney, Anthony Suarez, said many people who wrote checks to One Door may have been more interested in having a contact in Washington than in helping scholarship candidates.
“They wanted access” to Brown, a 12-term member of Congress, he said. “For most donors, they didn’t really care.”
He said Simmons accepted the plea deal after concluding that “a total acquittal was not likely” and deciding to follow his conscience.
“Ronnie is aware that he has a price to pay for his mistakes,” Suarez said after the hearing, which Simmons left without talking to reporters.
That price includes restitution payments, which Assistant U.S. Attorney A. Tysen Duva told Klindt are being finalized but total about $1 million so far.
Simmons’ plea could carry real importance for Brown, too. He was her employee for a quarter-century, and part of a circle of supporters she relied on. If Simmons testifies at Brown’s trial, he could be among the most damaging in a long list of associates expected to be called as witnesses.
The indictment mentioned others, identified by labels like Person A, who prosecutors said played important parts in Brown’s financial dealings. That list included Von Alexander, a part-time staffer who also did contract work for the Jacksonville Transportation Authority and worked on arrangements for a golf tournament bearing Brown’s name where participants wrote checks to One Door. An Orlando lobbyist closely involved with Brown’s political organization, Lavern Kelly, was also called to testify at grand jury hearings before the indictment was handed down, and could be called as a trial witness.
Steve Patterson: (904) 359-4263