Willie Wilson, the Chicago businessman who ran for mayor and president of the United States, testified Monday he paid thousands in consulting fees to former U.S. Rep. Mel Reynolds to seek business opportunities in Africa for Wilson’s company.
Wilson took the stand in federal court on the first day of Reynolds’ trial on misdemeanor charges that accuse him of failing to file income-tax returns between 2009 and 2012. Reynolds maintains that he collected only reimbursements for business expenses and was not required to file.
But federal prosecutors said Monday that Reynolds made more than $400,000 in income during that time, noting that he announced on a Chicago radio show in 2012 he’d been “earning money as a consultant here in America and in southern Africa.”
U.S. District Judge Robert Gettleman will decide Reynolds’ fate. If convicted, the former congressman faces a maximum of four years in prison. He is representing himself and gave his own opening statement and cross-examined witnesses, including Wilson.
Reynolds told the judge he traveled 400,000 miles in 26 months while consulting for Wilson and Chicago businessman Elzie Higginbottom, a member of the investor group that recently purchased the Chicago Sun-Times and Chicago Reader. Reynolds said he couldn’t have paid his way if the men hadn’t reimbursed him.
The former congressman, who has a troubled legal history, acknowledged that the businessmen didn’t want him on the payroll. Reynolds was convicted in 1995 of having sex with an underage campaign worker. Later, federal authorities hit him with campaign-finance charges for improperly using his campaign fund. Former President Bill Clinton commuted his sentence in 2001.
“They didn’t want to be associated with me,” Reynolds said of Wilson and Higginbottom.
Wilson later testified that he told Gettleman he met Reynolds through U.S. Rep. Danny Davis. He hired Reynolds to find customers in Africa for his company, Omar Medical Services. He also said Reynolds helped him make connections with officials in Zimbabwe and South Africa, including Zimbabwe President Robert Mugabe.
Federal prosecutors displayed several checks Wilson’s company cut to Reynolds’ business, Reynolds Consulting, totaling $52,600. The checks came during a five-month period in 2009 and 2010. During that time, Wilson said he basically put Reynolds on an honor system — agreeing to pay Reynolds whatever he said was due.
“Whatever figure that you gave me, that’s what I wrote the check for,” Wilson told Reynolds during his cross-examination.
Wilson said his relationship with Reynolds ended in 2010: “In layman’s terms, I’d been cut out of the deal.”
Reynolds tried to use Wilson’s past grand jury testimony to challenge Wilson’s contention that the payments represented a consulting fee. Wilson previously told the grand jury he paid some of Reynolds’ expenses, according to Reynolds.
But on Monday, Wilson said the reimbursements were limited to about $1,600 for a hotel stay.
“I paid you a consultant fee to do business for Omar,” Wilson said.
The pastor of a Chicago Heights church later testified Monday that he paid Reynolds $4,500 to help raise money for a new building. The head of an advocacy group for Zimbabwe also said Reynolds received $15,000 to help the group in its early days.