CHICAGO — Disgraced former U.S. Rep. Mel Reynolds is headed back to prison.
The controversial ex-congressman from Chicago was sentenced Thursday to six months in federal prison for failure to file income tax returns for four years, from 2009 to 2013, despite making about $400,000 as a consultant for two Chicago-area businessmen in Africa during that time.
Reynolds, a Democrat who served in the House from 1993 to 1995, saw his storybook political career upended when he was convicted in 1995 of sexual assault of a 16-year-old campaign worker.
While serving his sentence for the statutory rape conviction, Reynolds was convicted on a series of charges that included bank fraud, misusing campaign funds and making false statements to the Federal Election Commission. Those charges resulted in an additional 78-month federal prison sentence. He served 42 months on those charges before then-President Bill Clinton commuted the sentences.
The former congressman, who represented himself at his four-day bench trial last year on the tax fraud charges, insisted that the money he received was for business expenses and was not taxable income.
At his sentencing hearing, he made an argument that had he filed taxes he may have actually been owed a refund. U.S. District Judge Robert Gettleman noted that Reynolds’ argument seemed to conflate tax credits with tax deductions, and dismissed it.
Prosecutors noted that Reynolds’ bank records showed that he used much of the money to cover a daughter’s college tuition and make purchases at grocery stores, restaurants, and big box retailers. He even bought a video titled “Hip Hop Abs.”
Born to a poor family in Mississippi and later living as a youth on public assistance in Chicago, Reynolds climbed his way out of poverty and earned an advanced degree at Harvard University and was awarded the prestigious Rhodes Scholarship at Oxford University before running for office.
“It is really a tragedy that you squandered the type of opportunity you’ve had and the type of person you could have been,” Gettleman said before handing down the sentence.
Following the hearing, Reynolds struck a defiant tone in brief comments to reporters. The former lawmaker, who is slated to begin his sentence Aug. 1, said that he planned to move to Africa after he completes his prison term. He will receive credit for two months he spent in federal custody before posting bail ahead of his trial
“I’m done with America,” Reynolds said. “I am going to go home to Africa. I’ve given up on America.”
Reynolds had entered a consulting agreement to hunt for business opportunities in Zimbabwe on behalf of two prominent Chicago-area businessmen, Elzie Higginbottom and Willie Wilson. Higginbottom testified that he ended the partnership with Reynolds in 2012 after Reynolds managed to only land a single contract to sell latex gloves to Zimbabwe hospitals.
“Frankly, at the end of the day, (Reynolds) knew better,” federal prosecutors argued in their sentencing memorandum in which they recommended Reynolds face at least a two year prison sentence. His “personal behavior has repeatedly reflected his willingness to engage in fraudulent, criminal conduct and his readiness to mislead and defy courts in an attempt to obstruct justice.”
U.S. Probation officer Jodi Halleran also questioned in a sentencing report whether Reynolds “would have been deterred from participating in additional criminal conduct” had his previous sentences not been commuted by Clinton.
“This particular individual has clearly not been deterred in unlawful conduct,” Halleran wrote.
Reynolds argued that it was unfair that he “continue to be punished over and over” for his previous convictions.
“To put me in jail serves what purpose?” Reynolds said
Reynolds swept into office in 1992 when he defeated fellow Democrat and a six-term lawmaker, Rep. Gus Savage, who was facing accusations he made improper sexual advances to a Peace Corps volunteer during a trip to Africa.
Reynolds successor, Rep. Jesse Jackson Jr., a Democrat who represented the Illinois 2nd congressional district from 1995 to 2012, pleaded guilty to corruption charges in 2013 for using campaign money to buy more than $750,000 worth of luxury items, collectibles and clothes.
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