DISGRACED former US Congressman Mel Reynolds claimed in court Tuesday that a Chicago businessman used their partnership to funnel bribes to President Robert Mugabe — allegations that the businessman, Elzie Higginbottom, repeatedly denied.
Reynolds was in Zimbabwe in 2014 when he was feted by government ministers such as Ignatius Chombo and Walter Mzembi after claiming to be investing US$145m into developing five-star Hilton hotel and an office complex in the capital.
The project never took off and Reynolds would later be arrested at a Harare hotel on pornography charges which were dismissed by the courts. He was however, convicted on separate charges of staying in the country on an expired visa and deported.
Meanwhile the US allegations came as Reynolds — who is acting as his own attorney as he defends himself from misdemeanour 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.
High level contacts … Mel Reynolds with Zimbabwe government ministers in 2014
He spent 90 minutes on the witness stand, with Reynolds repeatedly questioning him about alleged pay-outs to 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.
Disgraced … Mel Reynolds (left) after his arrest in Harare
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 cheque for $100,000.
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.
The former congressman 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.
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.
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