Chicago Obama donors tried to strike it rich in Africa
Shortly after taking office, President Barack Obama made it clear to Zimbabwe that he would keep America’s economic sanctions against the nation’s leaders in place until they reformed their government’s repressive policies.
Around the same time, a cadre of Obama political supporters from Chicago began exploring an array of potentially lucrative ventures in the African nation, everything from manufacturing medical supplies to mining diamonds.
Despite the U.S. sanctions, Americans can legally do business in Zimbabwe as long as their deals don’t involve specific people, including President Robert Mugabe, and companies targeted by the sanctions in place since 2003.
But it’s a tricky road to navigate. So the Obama supporters turned to Mel Reynolds — a former congressman and twice-convicted felon — to seek business opportunities for them starting in 2009. That ended by 2014, when he was arrested in Zimbabwe for possessing pornography, which is a crime in that country. The case was later dropped.
Reynolds is now fighting misdemeanor charges in Chicago accusing him of failing to file federal income-tax returns in the United States reflecting money he received from two Chicago businessmen looking to strike it big in Zimbabwe, Elzie Higginbottom and Willie Wilson. Reynolds says the payments were reimbursements for business expenses, not income. He has battled in court to get Higginbottom’s tax returns, which he says will prove him right.
Higginbottom, a major political contributor to Obama and other Democrats, and Reynolds founded a company in Chicago called Sub-Sahara Inc. as the former congressman was meeting with government and business leaders in Zimbabwe, prospecting for deals.
“I would be the leg man, and he would be the money man,” Reynolds says of the hoped-for deals. “He would get 60 percent, and I would get 40 percent.”
Sub-Sahara’s African arm worked with Wilson, who later ran for mayor of Chicago and for president of the United States, as he teamed up with Medline Industries, Inc., a Chicago-area medical supply company, hoping to set up a manufacturing or distribution plant in Zimbabwe. Medline’s owners have been major political contributors to Obama, Mayor Rahm Emanuel and other Democrats.
Higginbottom, who made a fortune managing government-subsidized apartments in Chicago, also pursued his own deals, including housing construction and diamond mining.
But all of those eventually fell apart. And Higginbottom and Wilson ended up testifying before the federal grand jury that indicted Reynolds in 2015 for failing to file tax returns for four years, according to records and interviews. Both businessmen might be called to testify if Reynolds stands trial, possibly later this year.
Their dealings in Zimbabwe are now central to the U.S. government’s case against Reynolds, which is likely to give a behind-the-scenes look at the connections between some high-profile Chicagoans and Mugabe, one of Africa’s longest-serving rulers who Obama once described as a dictator.
Mugabe met with Higginbottom and Reynolds at a hotel in New York when he was attending meetings at the United Nations in September 2011. Higginbottom and the Rev. Jesse Jackson met with Mugabe at his offices in Zimbabwe in May 2013.
Higginbottom won’t talk about the meetings.
Continued next page