Tuesday’s status conference for Rep. Corrine Brown and her chief of staff, Ronnie Simmons, in a Jacksonville federal court laid out the basic framework for a multi-week trial beginning in April, involving dozens of witnesses, including members of Jacksonville’s donor class.
Meanwhile, there seemed to be daylight between strategy and preparation between the lawyers for Brown and Simmons, suggesting a practical reason for trying the defendants separately.
They agreed on one thing: citing voluminous discovery, both wanted a trial in June 2017.
The prosecution objected, however, saying February gave them enough time to review discovery.
Despite the compelling interest in a “speedy trial,” Judge Timothy Corrigan noted these defense lawyers came in in the middle of the case.
“This is a case that does require voluminous discovery,” Corrigan said, requiring review and contextualization of the material.
Corrigan offered a Solomonic compromise: a continuance to April 24, when jury selection begins, and the trial would be tried to conclusion beginning April 26.
The two co-defendants face 24 counts related to the One Door for Education charity, which Brown fundraised for over a period of years, yet which saw proceeds routed toward personal expenses for Brown and her inner circle.
Neither Brown nor Simmons attended the hearing, where the major intrigue was expected to be related to motions possibly filed by Brown’s team, including moving for separate trials of Brown and Simmons, attempting to introduce character witnesses, and a possible move toward dismissal of the case outright.
The prosecution, represented by A. Tysen Duva, noted “significant discovery” had been produced, and the defendants have those materials in hand.
James Smith, on behalf of Brown, noted in response there was a “significant matter” he had to discuss with the judge and counsel, related to his client.
As the sound of static filled the courtroom, the parties convened at the judge’s bench for several minutes.
Smith then pushed for a June trial, given the most recent disclosure from prosecutors was on Friday, and had hundreds of pages of documents spanning events that took place in Florida and the D.C. area, and that dozens of witnesses would be required.
Smith also believes some of the motions that will come up, such as a prosecution precluding character evidence, is objectionable.
He also asserted that Simmons’ attorney might want to sever defendants, which accords with Smith’s own anticipated motion.
Judge Corrigan wanted clarity on Smith’s desire to sever defendants; Smith asserted that motion likely is pending.
The motion to dismiss that Smith hinted at in his list of anticipated motions was, he said, filed in an “abundance of caution.”
Smith also expressed concern over evidence brought regarding things not charged in the 47-page indictment.
Regarding his review of discovery, Smith noted there is testimony from a few dozen grand jury witnesses and lots of paper.
Smith noted that, with allegations of a shopping trip in Los Angeles and trips to Jersey, it is incumbent on his side to establish “charitable purposes.”
“This is a case that is national in scope,” Smith said, and the discovery is “voluminous” and requires considerable time to process.
Simmons’ lawyer, Anthony Suarez, noted he has yet to get through all the discovery. Corrigan was irked, as Suarez decided to “blow through deadlines” related to the hard deadline to file anticipated motions on Oct. 18.
Corrigan was sharp.
“If I direct you to do something, you’ve got to do it. I’m not going to have you just ignore it,” the judge said.
Suarez expressed worry about the grand jury selection process, and said he’s “still in the process” of evaluating the motion to sever defendants.
Suarez also expressed concern about the voluminous discovery, which he described as a “daunting task.”
Also daunting: Simmons lives in Maryland, which impacts “the length of time before I get an answer to some questions that pop up in the discovery material.”
Long story short, Suarez joined Smith in seeking a June trial commencement.
Duva said a February start was “realistic,” given his side’s consistent production of discovery documents.
The “voluminous” discovery burden is mooted, to some degree, by the limited amount of the evidence that will be presented at trial, plus the fairly simple outlining of the scheme to defraud.
Duva said it was “misleading” to say the discovery consisted of more than “manageable information.”
“This is a very clear presentation of the theory of the case,” Duva said, and “a February trial provides defense counsel with a five-month opportunity” to review the case.
Expected in the multi-week trial: 40 to 50 government witnesses, including One Door for Education’s head Carla Wiley (now cooperating with the prosecution) and members of the political donor class, including one-time and repeat donors, said prosecutor Duva, who estimated he may need 10 to 12 trial days to make the government’s case.
Duva floated the possibility of a “plea from one defendant” that could change the trial parameters, even while both defendants claim to want to go to trial.
“We have made every effort,” Duva said, “to guide the defense in the discovery.”
After a recess, Judge Corrigan emerged with questions.
Corrigan wanted to know if there would be an expert witness.
Brown’s lawyer said there may be a forensic accountant on his side.
Corrigan also wanted an idea of how long the defense would take. Smith expects to need at least five days for Brown’s defense; Suarez predicted needing a day or two more for his defense of Simmons.
All told, the case may take three to four weeks to try, including jury selection, which Corrigan said “might take longer than average” given the high profile of the defendants.
Motions will be filed in December. Another status conference will be set for Jan. 9 at 1:30, when rulings will be made on motions.
The most interesting motion: whether or not the co-defendants will be severed, as both defense teams seem to want.
Another status conference is set for March 23 ahead of the April 26 trial, with jury selection beginning April 24.
Defendants will have to be there for both status conferences.
“That setting gives the defendants an appropriate amount of time to do the things they need to do,” Corrigan said.