Former U.S. Rep. Mel Reynolds’ misdemeanor tax trial digressed into allegations of large-scale international bribery on Tuesday as the former lawmaker accused a prominent Chicago developer of paying kickbacks to Zimbabwe President Robert Mugabe in the hopes of starting a lucrative diamond mine operation.
Reynolds, 65, is representing himself at the trial at the Dirksen U.S. Courthouse on four misdemeanor counts of failing to file an income tax return. Prosecutors alleged he hid more than $400,000 from the Internal Revenue Service that he collected for consulting work he did in Africa on behalf of two wealthy Chicago businessmen, including clout-heavy real estate developer Elzie Higginbottom.
Higginbottom testified Tuesday he partnered with Reynolds in 2009 on a venture seeking business in Zimbabwe and agreed to pay him $10,000 a month for his consulting services. Under questioning by prosecutors, Higginbottom said he pulled the plug on the operation in 2012 after Reynolds managed to make only one deal — a contract to sell latex gloves to Zimbabwe hospitals that ultimately lost more than $100,000.
But in a lengthy cross-examination, Reynolds, a twice-convicted felon, accused Higginbottom of using the company they formed, Sub-Sahara LLC, to funnel bribes to members of Mugabe’s regime in order to start a diamond mine operation in that country. Higginbottom flatly denied the allegations.
“No, I did not,” Higginbottom replied.
Later, after prosecutors and Reynolds huddled in a lengthy sidebar with U.S. District Judge Robert Gettleman, Reynolds returned to the podium and asked about an alleged deal between Higginbottom and Mugabe to split the proceeds of the mine 50-50. Higginbottom again denied the accusation.
Reynolds also asked a series of questions about a check for $100,000 that Higginbottom reportedly sent to Christopher Mutsvangwa, a close associate of Mugabe, from the Sub-Sahara account. When Higginbottom said he didn’t recall sending the money, Reynolds turned toward the judge and gestured with his hands as though he couldn’t believe the answer.
“You’re running a company, obviously very well, and you don’t know whether you sent $100,000 to someone in Africa?” Reynolds asked incredulously.
Higginbottom did acknowledge meeting in 2012 with a delegation of Zimbabwean officials — including the country’s minister of mining — in the Washington offices of U.S. Rep. Bobby Rush of Chicago. Reynolds, who was also at the meeting, claimed in his questioning that Higginbottom was angry with him at the time because he thought Reynolds had screwed up the mining deal.
“That’s not what happened,” Higginbottom testified.
“In fact, that’s exactly what happened, isn’t it?” Reynolds shouted.
The judge immediately sustained objections from prosecutors over the improper form of the question.
Reynolds has pleaded not guilty to the four-count indictment, claiming the money he was paid was for travel and other expenses, not income, and therefore did not need to be reported to the IRS.
Each count carries a maximum sentence of one year in prison and a $250,000 fine. – Chicago Tribune