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Ex-Congressman Reynolds says he wants to plead guilty in tax case

Mel Reynolds talks to reporters after an earlier appearance in federal court. | Maudlyne Ihejirika/Sun-Times file photo

Mel Reynolds, the defiant former congressman who vowed to fight misdemeanor tax charges at trial later this year, has informed a federal judge he has no choice but to plead guilty.

But that came as a surprise Tuesday to Richard Kling, Reynolds’ former lawyer, who said Reynolds told him in a more recent conversation he still wants to go to trial. Kling is serving as stand-by counsel in Reynolds’ case.

Reynolds asked U.S. District Judge John Darrah in a handwritten motion entered on the court docket Tuesday to let him come to court “at the earliest time possible” to plead guilty to failing to file tax returns. The motion was signed May 3 — one week ago.

“Your Honor, no matter what you personally think of me, all I have ever wanted here was a fair trial,” Reynolds wrote.

It amounted to yet another twist in what might be one of the most dramatic misdemeanor tax cases to hit the Dirksen Federal Courthouse.

Darrah threw Reynolds behind bars last month after Reynolds failed to return to Chicago on time from South Africa, where he said he had been tending to his ailing daughter. Reynolds’ whereabouts were unknown for about 10 days, until he was arrested at the Atlanta airport. Darrah then gave Reynolds six days to find a place to live where he could be on electronic monitoring. Reynolds failed to do so.

Just before Darrah ordered him into custody, Reynolds said he would represent himself. Reynolds later gained access to a phone and contacted the Chicago Sun-Times to complain he was being held in 23-hour isolation at the Jerome Combs Detention Center in Kankakee.

In his latest filing, Reynolds said he hasn’t been given access to computers or documents that would let him prepare for his June 20 trial.

“It is more than clear that I cannot get ready for trial,” Reynolds wrote.

He asked the judge last week to put him in a halfway house. The judge has scheduled a May 19 hearing on that and other matters.

Prosecutors have asked Darrah not to let Reynolds argue at trial that he is the victim of racial bias, pointing to tweets and press releases from Reynolds since his June 2015 indictment, including an April 1 press release stating that “what is happening to me is just one more real example of how the criminal justice system is systematically destroying black families.”

They also asked the judge to bar Reynolds from accusing businessmen Elzie Higginbottom and Willie Wilson — who could both testify at Reynolds’ trial — of criminal misconduct. They wrote that Higginbottom and Wilson were engaged in business ventures in Zimbabwe, and both agreed to pay Reynolds a fee to draw upon his relationships there.

“The fee was income to the defendant that should have been reported on a tax return,” Assistant U.S. Attorney Barry Jonas wrote.

Reynolds was accused last year of failing to file federal income tax returns between 2009 and 2012. He held the 2nd Congressional District seat from 1993 to 1995. He was then convicted of having sex with an underage campaign worker. While in jail for that conviction, the feds hit Reynolds with campaign finance charges for improperly using his campaign fund. Former President Bill Clinton commuted Reynolds’ sentence in 2001 to time served.

The former congressman was deported to the United States in 2014 after paying a fine for violating Zimbabwe’s immigration laws. He was ordered to pay a $100 fine or five days imprisonment after pleading guilty to flouting the country’s immigration laws by staying longer than his visa permitted.

Reynolds Change of Plea Motion