Mel Reynolds certainly looked the part of a defense lawyer as he moved Monday through the courtroom of U.S. District Judge Robert Gettleman.
In his best gray suit, the lanky 65-year-old former congressman rose forcefully from his seat to raise objections and paced purposely to the lectern to cross-examine witnesses.
By the end of the day, no television lawyer was any better at delivering this signature line: “I have no further questions, your honor.”
But you wouldn’t really want to hire a television lawyer to defend you in a real court of law, because there is a big difference between acting the part of a lawyer and actually practicing law.
On trial for the third time in his life, you might have thought Reynolds would understand that. His instincts took him in the other direction.
An accomplished actor in many real life roles, Reynolds has chosen to defend himself on misdemeanor federal tax charges.
Federal prosecutors say Reynolds failed to file a federal income tax return from 2009 to 2012.
Reynolds insists he had no reportable income during that time period, only money paid to cover his expenses, mostly by Chicago businessmen, including Willie Wilson and Elzie Higginbottom Jr., for whom he was trying to secure business opportunities in Zimbabwe. Higginbottom is a member of the investor group that owns the Chicago Sun-Times and Chicago Reader.
It’s really not much of a case. When you figure that at least some of the money he received really was for expenses, it’s not clear to me he would have owed all that much in taxes.
Most likely, federal authorities were pursuing the Zimbabwe connection and decided they couldn’t walk away from Reynolds’ tax issues once discovered, given his track record.
That track record, many will recall, includes two prior convictions, the first in state court for having sex with an underage campaign worker and the second in federal court on campaign and bank fraud charges.
President Bill Clinton commuted the federal sentence, the thinking at the time being that Reynolds had been partly the victim of prosecutorial piling on.
Back in court Monday, Reynolds quickly fell into the problem that most pro se litigants find themselves.
Instead of asking questions of witnesses according to proper courtroom procedure, Reynolds kept trying to make speeches.
“I think you should just ask a question. You’re starting to argue,” Gettleman admonished him at one point.
Later, the judge protested: “You’re asking the same question over and over.”
When Reynolds chimed in with improper objections, Gettleman patiently advised: “You’ll be able to cross-examine him on that, Mr. Reynolds.”
But throughout the day, Gettleman gave the former Rhodes scholar wide leeway to present his case as he wished, despite objections by prosecutors to his unconventional style.
Gettleman is hearing the case in a bench trial without a jury, which makes it much easier to weed out the chaff.
Before testimony got underway Monday, U.S. Attorney Barry Jonas asked Gettleman to again apprise Reynolds of his right to legal representation, invoking the old saw that someone who represents himself in court has a fool for a client.
Jonas mangled the expression and Gettleman corrected him.
After court Monday, Reynolds contacted Sun-Times federal court reporter Jon Seidel to complain.
“I was disappointed today,” he said. “I felt like I was literally being made fun of by the prosecution and the judge. My rights are not being taken seriously.”
I thought Gettleman treated him very respectfully, as is his practice with everyone I’ve ever seen in his courtroom, but I’m sure Reynolds is already thinking about grounds for an appeal.
When I approached him, Reynolds only offered a “no comment.” I believe he thought I wouldn’t treat him fairly.
Maybe that’s because I’ve caught his act too many times.