Former Congressman Mel Reynolds said in court Tuesday that a clout-heavy Chicago businessman tried to use a partnership with Reynolds to funnel bribes to officials in Zimbabwe — allegations that the businessman, Elzie Higginbottom, repeatedly denied.
The allegations came as Reynolds — who is acting as his own attorney as he defends himself from misdemeanor federal tax-evasion charges — cross-examined Higginbottom, who said he paid Reynolds a $10,000-a-month consulting fee to help him drum up business opportunities in Africa.
The returns on the deal apparently weren’t great: Higginbottom testified the only deal Reynolds put together — one to sell latex gloves in Africa — lost more than $100,000.
Higginbottom, a millionaire developer and major Democratic donor, is among several investors in a group that purchased the Chicago Sun-Times in July.
He spent 90 minutes on the witness stand, with Reynolds repeatedly questioning him about alleged payouts to Zimbabwe dictator Robert Mugabe and other senior Zimbabwe government officials.
“Did you ever send money to me in Zimbabwe to give to a high-ranking elected official?” Reynolds asked Higginbottom.
“No I did not,” Higginbottom said, frowning.
“Did you ever give Robert Mugabe a check for money for him?” Reynolds asked.
“Absolutely not,” Higginbottom said.
“Did you have a deal with Robert Mugabe for a diamond concession in Zimbabwe?” Reynolds asked.
“No, I did not,” Higginbottom said.
Reynolds alleged Mugabe had agreed to grant Higginbottom a concession to mine diamonds and split the profits with the dictator after Higginbottom gave Mugabe a check for $100,000.
Reynolds also claimed Higginbottom was upset that Reynolds had somehow sabotaged the deal. He also said that Higginbottom had paid off another Zimbabwe official to “set up” the former congressman, who was arrested at a hotel in Harare, Zimbabwe, in 2014 for possession of pornography, which is a crime in the southern African nation. The pornography charges against Reynolds later were dropped.
Reynolds offered no documentation of his claim that Higginbottom had tried to funnel the cash to Mugabe through a company called Sub-Sahara, which the two men had founded to prospect for business deals in Africa. Reynolds several times asked Higginbottom about a “journal” that showed the transactions, but Reynolds never produced the record.
At one point during the increasingly terse string of questions and denials, Reynolds turned to U.S. District Judge Robert Gettleman and shrugged.
After his time on the witness stand, Higginbottom declined to answer questions from reporters.
Whether Reynolds’ allegations against Higginbottom will sway Gettleman to acquit Reynolds of four misdemeanor counts of tax evasion remains to be seen. Reynolds is charged with not paying taxes on more than $400,000 he received from Higginbottom and another Chicago millionaire, Willie Wilson, who each had hired Reynolds as a consultant from 2009 to 2012.
Reynolds maintains the payments were advances for expenses he incurred pursuing deals, and as such, weren’t taxable.
The former congressman has dragged his case out for years as he has sparred with prosecutors, a judge originally appointed to the case, as well as Higginbottom. Reynolds — who has been convicted of having sex with a teenage campaign volunteer and misusing campaign funds, both felonies — has repeatedly made vague allegations against Higginbottom as he has attempted to get records from the businessman.
While in court, Reynolds said he is considering airing more details about the alleged conspiracy, adding that he may take the rare step of taking the stand himself when testimony resumes Wednesday.