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United States v. Brown

United States District Court, M.D. Florida, Jacksonville Division

December 4, 2017


          SENTENCING ORDER [1]


         I. Introduction

         As I have written before, when I am asked what's the most important attribute of a good judge, I say ‘humility.' This is especially true in sentencing. No matter how long we judges have done it, we can never forget what an awesome responsibility it is to decide whether and for how long to deprive someone of their liberty. We also must remember our duty to those affected by the sentencing, to the general public, and to the cause of justice, and must do everything we can to get it right.[2]

         “[S]entencing is the most multifaceted, emotional, and challenging task a judge performs.”[3] To bring home this point, after 46 years on the bench, my colleague and mentor, the Honorable William Terrell Hodges, recently sentenced his last defendant. At the end of the sentencing, Judge Hodges recalled advice he had received years earlier from his mentor, Judge Charles Scott, about sentencing: “If it ever gets easy, it's time to quit.”

         Fortunately, the law gives me some tools to help make the difficult sentencing decisions. The federal sentencing statute, 18 U.S.C. § 3553(a), lists a number of factors for the Court to consider in arriving at a sentence. These 3553(a) factors include the nature and circumstances of the crime committed, the history and characteristics of the defendant, the need for the sentence imposed to reflect the seriousness of the crime, promote respect for law and provide just punishment, the need for deterrence, and protection of the public, among others. The statute also requires consideration of the advisory sentencing guidelines.

         While these sentencing factors are helpful, they do not yield a specific result, as if a mathematical equation. Rather, it ultimately remains the task of the sentencing judge to determine a sentence that, in the words of the statute, is “sufficient, but not greater than necessary, to comply with the purposes” of sentencing. 18 U.S.C. § 3553(a). It is to this task that we now turn.

         II. The Nature and Circumstances of the Offense (Applies to all defendants)

         On May 11, 2017, a jury returned a guilty verdict against former United States Congresswoman Corrine Brown on 18 felony counts of conspiracy, aiding and abetting mail and wire fraud, concealing material facts on her Congressional financial disclosure forms, and various tax related charges. Her co-defendant and former Chief of Staff, Elias “Ronnie” Simmons, had already pled guilty to two counts of conspiracy and aiding and abetting theft of government funds, and their co-conspirator, Carla Wiley, had pled guilty to conspiracy to commit wire fraud.[4] Although both Ms. Brown and Mr. Simmons also stand convicted of crimes that did not involve their co-conspirators, the centerpiece of the prosecution was the illegal scheme involving all three defendants- their knowing and willful participation in the fraudulent solicitation and theft of funds from the charity known as One Door for Education.

         One Door for Education was operated as a criminal enterprise by Carla Wiley, Ronnie Simmons and Corrine Brown. While each had different roles in this criminal enterprise, they all reaped the benefits of their fraudulent activities. The defendants' fraud was particularly shameless because it utilized a charity established to honor Ms. Wiley's mother that was supposed to help disadvantaged children. Yet precious little of the hundreds of thousands of dollars donated to One Door was used for this purpose. Rather, One Door funds were primarily used to line the pockets of Ms. Wiley, Mr. Simmons and Ms. Brown or to fund events that mainly benefitted Ms. Brown, but did not help children.

         Ms. Wiley started One Door for Education in Virginia in 2011 with the intent to establish scholarships for students interested in becoming teachers like Ms. Wiley's mother. But she was unable to raise much money on her own and the charity did very little. In 2012 she began a relationship with Mr. Simmons who saw an opportunity for then Congresswoman Brown to become involved with One Door. Although Mr. Simmons was never an authorized signatory on the One Door accounts, Ms. Wiley turned the checkbook and debit card over to him in August 2012. Almost immediately, Ms. Brown began soliciting donors to contribute to One Door. And as quickly as the money flowed in, Mr. Simmons withdrew it at Ms. Brown's direction, forging Ms. Wiley's signature when necessary. Ms. Wiley monitored the One Door bank account and was aware of the money coming into and leaving the account. At Mr. Simmons' request, Ms. Wiley regularly advised him when donated funds had cleared, enabling him to withdraw more money. Sometimes Mr. Simmons went directly to an ATM, withdrew the maximum amount allowed, and delivered the cash to Ms. Brown in her House office. At other times, he withdrew the funds from One Door via an ATM and deposited them into Ms. Brown's bank account at another bank just minutes away. Mr. Simmons also helped himself to the One Door cash. Thousands of dollars in One Door checks were made out to third parties who then wrote checks to Ms. Brown which she or Mr. Simmons deposited into Ms. Brown's personal accounts. Other times One Door paid for goods, services or events benefitting Ms. Brown, Mr. Simmons and Ms. Wiley. Ms. Wiley, who had online access to the One Door bank account, also took One Door funds.

         Ms. Brown and Mr. Simmons solicited and received over $833, 000 which was deposited into the account of One Door, an entity Ms. Brown falsely touted to donors as being a 501(c)(3) charity providing educational opportunities for children. The government's forensic accountants traced $330, 000 of that money to events attended by Ms. Brown or held in her honor, such as sky box seats at an NFL game, a luxury box at a Beyoncé concert, and free catered parties with live music held in upscale hotels, none of which had anything to do with charitable fundraising for One Door; $93, 536 in ATM withdrawals which Mr. Simmons either gave to Ms. Brown in cash, deposited for her, or kept for himself; $16, 641 funneled through third parties to Ms. Brown's personal bank accounts or those of her daughter; $15, 156 to pay for Mr. Simmons' expenses; $13, 292 to pay expenses of Ms. Brown and her daughter; $182, 730 stolen by Ms. Wiley; and $2, 936 for Mr. Simmons and Ms. Wiley to take a Miami Beach vacation.

         Compounding the seriousness of these crimes, both Ms. Brown and Mr. Simmons traded on Ms. Brown's status as a member of Congress to solicit the donations to One Door which they then fraudulently converted to their own use. And each committed additional crimes facilitated by their public positions: Ms. Brown used her clout as a Congresswoman to convince charitable organizations to inflate her donations so that she could fraudulently claim deductions on her income tax returns. Mr. Simmons, as Brown's Chief of Staff, created a bogus government job for his sister thereby forcing the taxpayers to pay the sister salary and benefits she had not earned. Mr. Simmons then took a significant part of the sister's compensation for his own personal use.

         The public had a right to expect that Ms. Brown, as an elected member of Congress, and Mr. Simmons, her long time Chief of Staff, would not abuse their positions of public trust and responsibility. It also had a right to expect that Ms. Wiley, Mr. Simmons and Ms. Brown would not steal money donated for the benefit of children and spend it on themselves. Nor can any of these three individuals rationalize their criminal conduct by claiming financial hardship- each had jobs which paid substantial salaries. Rather, this was a crime borne of entitlement and greed, committed to support a lifestyle that was beyond their lawful means. In short, this was bad business.

         One of the complicating aspects of the sentencing decision in these cases is what to make of the victims. Unlike many of the fraud victims I have seen over the years in this Court, none of the One Door donors were devastated or financially ruined by the crimes of these defendants. Many of the donors were wealthy. While surely some were motivated to donate to an obscure Virginia-based charity for benevolent reasons, others sought to maintain access to Ms. Brown and remain in her good graces. Although the government was required to notify all of these victims of their right to speak at the sentencing hearing, apparently none felt sufficiently aggrieved to do so.

         Nevertheless, even taking into account the mixed motives of some of the One Door donors, all of them had a right to expect that a substantial portion of their donation would be used for the stated purpose: to help children. Many of the donors testified that Ms. Brown personally visited them to ask for donations to One Door. The donors who testified said they would not have given the money had they known it was going to personally benefit Ms. Brown, Ms. Wiley and Mr. Simmons.

         There is one additional victim- One Door itself. These defendants systematically looted One Door funds which otherwise would have been available to help deserving children. Just think of the good that could have been done with that money if it had been used for its proper purpose.

         The Court now turns to an individual assessment of each defendant's sentencing factors.

         III. Carla Wiley

         Before her involvement with Ronnie Simmons, Ms. Wiley was, by all accounts, a well regarded person who devoted substantial time to civic affairs. Ms. Wiley started the One Door for Education charity for the good purpose of honoring her mother, a life long teacher, and to provide scholarships and other assistance to deserving children. According to One Door's website, the goal of One Door was to “[provide] scholarships and opportunities to students pursuing a degree in Education as well as opening doors in the community.” The One Door slogan was “We make your education dreams a reality.” In reality, very little of the money donated to One Door benefitted children. Instead, Ms. Wiley, having entered into a relationship with Mr. Simmons, ceded operational control over the One Door fundraising and spending to Mr. Simmons, knowing that he intended to use One Door as a vehicle to fund Ms. Brown's activities and personal lifestyle. Even though Mr. Simmons was in charge, Ms. Wiley remained involved in One Door's fraudulent activities. Despite being the registered agent and director of One Door, Ms. Wiley never complied with any of the state and federal laws governing charities. And while One Door advertised itself as a 501(c)(3) tax exempt organization, at no time did Ms. Wiley do what was necessary to make that representation true. Ms. Wiley also monitored the One Door accounts so she could see the money flowing in and out and helped to facilitate the deposit of checks from One Door donors.

         If this was all Ms. Wiley had done, it would be bad enough. But Ms. Wiley decided to take advantage of the large amount of money flowing into One Door to feather her own nest. Between 2012 and 2016 she initiated approximately 160 individual electronic transfers from the One Door account to her personal bank account and to one she shared with her son, totaling over $120, 000.00. These transfers ranged in size from $50.00 to $9, 000.00 and on numerous occasions Ms. Wiley initiated multiple transfers on the same day. She also withdrew an additional $41, 600.00 from the One Door account, made personal car payments totaling more than $16, 000.00, used approximately $3, 500 of One Door funds to pay ...

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