Since his indictment in 2015, the feds’ case against Mel Reynolds has been the most dramatic misdemeanor matter at the Dirksen Federal Courthouse.
The former congressman, who has chosen to represent himself, was thrown in jail after an extended trip to South Africa and has engaged in a long legal tiff with a Chicago businessman.
Now, after two years of build-up, Reynolds is preparing to defend himself at trial starting Monday, where he may find himself questioning prominent Chicagoans under oath.
Reynolds faces four counts alleging he failed to turn in his tax returns in 2009, 2010, 2011 and 2012. For each count, he faces a year in prison at most. The feds have even said they “will not present any evidence that the defendant owed taxes.”
However, the case could shed light on efforts by some of former President Barack Obama’s political backers to land lucrative business ventures in Zimbabwe — even after Obama made clear he would continue economic sanctions against the country’s leaders.
They turned to Reynolds for help, starting in 2009. But the feds say Reynolds failed to report money he made along the way. Reynolds argues the money was not income but reimbursement for business expenses.
Reynolds declined to comment for this story but has repeatedly complained about the prosecution, calling the federal criminal justice system “racist” and the prosecutors in Chicago “shameful.”
Among those expected to testify are Elzie Higginbottom, a key campaign fundraiser for ex-Mayor Richard M. Daley and other Democrats. He’s also a member of the investor group that purchased the Chicago Sun-Times and Chicago Reader in July.
Willie Wilson, who has run for Chicago mayor and president of the United States, has also been tied to the case.
U.S. District Judge Robert Gettleman will decide Reynolds’ fate rather than a jury.
The former congressman is hardly a stranger to the legal system. If he testifies, prosecutors have warned they want to discuss at least one of his past convictions.
Reynolds held the 2nd Congressional District seat from 1993 to 1995, when he was convicted of having sex with an underage campaign worker. While in jail, the feds hit Reynolds with campaign finance charges for improperly using his campaign fund. In 2001, former President Bill Clinton commuted his sentence.
Thirteen years later, Reynolds got into hot water in Zimbabwe when he was arrested for allegedly possessing pornography, which is a crime there. He was deported to the United States after paying a fine for violating Zimbabwe’s immigration laws.
Finally, in 2015, a federal grand jury handed down the indictment for which he will go to trial on Monday. The case has been full of drama. At one point, Reynolds wrote in a court filing that he wanted to plead guilty, only to take it back days later.
Reynolds also caused a stir when he traveled to South Africa to tend to his ailing daughter. Because he didn’t return on time, a judge issued a warrant for Reynolds’ arrest. Reynolds was taken into custody at the Atlanta airport before being allowed to return on his own to Chicago. Then, when he couldn’t find a place to stay where he could be put on electronic monitoring, the judge had him locked up for roughly two months.