A well-known South Side activist and restaurateur pleaded guilty Friday to violating federal law by lobbying on behalf of the violent and oppressive regime of Zimbabwe’s longtime president in spite of U.S. economic sanctions.
Prince Asiel Ben Israel, 72, whose colorful history in Chicago includes his leadership of a religious sect in the 1980s, pleaded guilty to one count of failing to register as an agent for a foreign government.
Ben Israel admitted to trying to persuade U.S. government officials -- including an Illinois state senator and two U.S. representatives from Chicago -- to push for the lifting of the sanctions imposed in 2003 on Zimbabwe president Robert Mugabe and other top Zimbabwe government officials.
He and co-defendant C. Gregory Turner, also of Chicago, had reached a consulting agreement with the Zimbabwe officials to be paid $3.4 million for their efforts, according to Ben Israel’s plea agreement. Turner, 71, has pleaded not guilty and is awaiting trial.
Following his guilty plea, Ben Israel, carrying a polished wooden cane he said he obtained on a trip to West Africa, told reporters he knew he should have cleared his lobbying work. But he claimed his intentions had been altruistic and part of his efforts over the last four decades to help the oppressed people of Africa.
But when a Tribune reporter asked about the $3.4 million windfall he expected to reap in the scheme, Ben Israel stood silent for a few seconds before his attorney, Raymond Pijon, stepped in and said it would be inappropriate to answer that question with his sentencing still pending.
Authorities said the discussions began in November 2008 when Ben Israel and Turner told Zimbabwe officials that they knew many politicians with close ties to Barack Obama, the U.S. senator from Illinois who had just been elected president.
The charges do not name any of the politicians, but details included in the charges made it clear that among the lawmakers the two dealt with were then-state Sen. Donne Trotter, D-Chicago, as well as U.S. Reps. Danny Davis and Bobby Rush, both Chicago Democrats. None of the public officials was accused of wrongdoing.
Ben Israel and Turner were successful in arranging for Trotter -- identified in court documents only as State Senator A –and several other lawmakers to meet with Mugabe and other top Zimbabwe officials during several trips there in 2008 and 2009, according to the charges. Davis and Rush – identified as United States Representatives A and B – participated in numerous meetings about the lobbying effort and also sponsored a failed 2010 House resolution to end the Zimbabwe sanctions.
As an initial payment on the contract, Ben Israel in December 2008 received $90,000 in cash from a Zimbabwe official’s bank account in Botswana, according to his plea agreement. It was not alleged Ben Israel or Turner received any other payments, and their lobbying efforts ultimately failed as President Obama continued the sanctions first imposed under the previous administration.
Ben Israel gained recognition in the 1980s as a leader of the Black Hebrew Israelite sect, a Chicago-based group whose members believe they are direct descendants of the ancient Israelites.
For years, his family has run the popular Soul Vegetarian restaurant on the South Side.