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updated 1/13/2011 6:37:51 PM ET 2011-01-13T23:37:51

A juvenile justice worker exploited his job to extract sexual favors from underage girls in what should have been a safe setting, a courthouse, prosecutors said as he went on trial Thursday in a case closely followed by women's advocates.

But Tony Simmons' lawyer said the accusers were troubled girls who made the allegations out of ulterior motives: hopes of getting out of custody or getting a payout in a lawsuit. The trial, lawyer Gregory Watford said, was a first step "in removing this dark cloud over his head."

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It's a cloud Simmons was prepared to live with until last month. He pleaded guilty to rape and other charges in September and was promised a no-jail sentence until a judge rescinded the deal last month, amid criticism from the district attorney and outrage from women's rights activists.

Jurors heard none of that during opening statements Thursday, as Simmons' guilty plea had been voided. What they heard were two contrasting versions of disturbing dynamics between delinquents and a man who was supposed to be supervising them.

As a $37,000-a-year counselor with New York City's Department of Juvenile Justice, Simmons, now 47, was tasked with picking up offenders at detention facilities, bringing them to court and watching over them there, prosecutors said. The offenders' cases generally are handled in Family Court.

Three girls, who are expected to testify, said he abruptly began fondling them after taking them aside in the Manhattan Family Court building in separate incidents from 2005 to 2008, assistant district attorney Evan Krutoy said. At the time, the girls were 15 and 16, under the age of consent in New York.

One testified Thursday that he made advances that ended with her performing oral sex on him in a locker area. She promptly mentioned the encounter to another juvenile justice worker, initially leaving out Simmons' name because "I didn't want (him) to get in trouble," said the woman, now 18, testifying in a soft but steady voice.

Another accuser said he groped her in a kitchen after asking her to help him unload a cooler of sandwiches, Krutoy said.

Simmons "is a nasty dog. ... I need to get out of here now," she wrote in a note to a female worker shortly afterward, the prosecutor said.

The third girl told authorities Simmons raped her in a courthouse elevator, Krutoy said.

Simmons, the prosecutor said, figured: "Who's going to believe them?"

Simmons' lawyer told jurors they shouldn't.

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The two girls who described encounters in the locker room and kitchen were desperate to get out of juvenile facilities, Watford said. "They said whatever it took to try to change their situation," he said.

The woman who testified Thursday acknowledged that on the day of the alleged incident, she learned she wasn't getting sent to the facility of her choice. She had a history of running away from juvenile facilities and lashing out violently there, said the woman, who said she had been prostituting herself since at least age 13.

The third accuser has sued the city, seeking millions of dollars, and is "trying to cash in on that lawsuit," Watford said.

Before Simmons' guilty plea was scrubbed, he told probation interviewers the girls had enticed him, claiming one thanked him after he allegedly raped her, according to state Supreme Court Justice Cassandra Mullen, who initially sanctioned and then nixed his plea and promise of 10 years' probation. She said she changed her mind because Simmons showed a "disturbing" lack of remorse during the interviews.

Manhattan District Attorney Cyrus R. Vance Jr. had blasted the probation deal as "outrageously lenient," the Daily News had scorned it in an editorial, and National Organization for Women members and others had demonstrated outside the courthouse.

The top charges against Simmons are punishable by up to four years in prison, but his potential penalty if convicted is hard to calculate because of the complexities of sentencing laws.

Simmons was suspended and then assigned to desk duty after the allegations emerged in July 2008, authorities said. He resigned in September as the Juvenile Justice Department was moving to fire him, the agency said.

Copyright 2011 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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