A Chicago man charged with illegally lobbying on behalf of the violent and oppressive regime of Zimbabwe’s longtime president alleged today in a court filing that a 2006 Capitol Hill meeting between a senior Zimbabwean official, then-U.S. Sen. Joseph Biden and other Congressional leaders led him to believe his activities to end longtime economic sanctions were lawful.
C. Gregory Turner, 71, faces trial next month on charges he tried 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 Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe and other top Zimbabwean government officials.
In the filing today, Turner’s attorneys asked U.S. District Judge Elaine Bucklo to allow them to present evidence at trial of an off-the-radar “welcome reception” in 2006 for Gideon Gono, the head of the Reserve Bank of Zimbabwe who was on a list of “specially designated nationals” targeted for U.S. sanctions since 2001.
Biden, who is now the vice president, had co-sponsored the reception even though he was one of the key sponsors of the sanctions legislation five years earlier, according to the defense filing. Numerous members of the Congressional Black Caucus also attended the meeting in a reception room on the Senate side of the U.S. Capitol to hear Gono speak about the effect of the sanctions on the people of Zimbabwe, the filing said.
No cameras were allowed at the function, but a “short video” was secretly made by one of the attendees, according to the filing.
“Biden is seen on video welcoming Gono…and shaking Gono’s hand,” the filing said.
News of the warm reception Gono received soon reached Turner, who at the time was in Zimbabwe working with a private organization aimed at helping the people of the impoverished nation, according to the filing.
Turner’s attorney, James Tunick, said that the evidence would show that Turner “did not in any way act with intent to violate the law.”
“Gregory Turner had been on the ground in Africa for humanitarian purposes for a long time,” Tunick said. “When the signal came from the U.S. government and legislators that there might be a change to their position on sanctions, he had people come to Zimbabwe and see the effects of the sanctions.”
Calls to Biden’s press office seeking comment were not immediately returned this afternoon.
The charges brought by federal prosecutors in Chicago allege Turner and co-defendant Prince Asiel Ben Israel had reached a consulting deal with the Zimbabwean officials to be paid $3.4 million for their efforts. Prosecutors allege the two told Zimbabwean officials in November 2008 that they knew many politicians with close ties to President-elect Barack Obama.
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 the state senator and several other lawmakers to meet with Mugabe and other top Zimbabwean officials during several trips there in 2008 and 2009, according to the charges.
The two U.S. representatives participated in numerous meetings about the lobbying effort and also sponsored a failed 2010 House resolution to end the Zimbabwean sanctions.
Ben Israel, 72, a well-known South Side activist and restaurateur, pleaded guilty in April and was sentenced to 7 months in prison.
As an initial payment on the contract, Ben Israel received $90,000 in cash in December 2008 from a Zimbabwean official's bank account in Botswana, according to his plea agreement. It was not alleged he or Turner received any other payments, and their lobbying efforts ultimately failed as Obama continued the sanctions first imposed under the previous administration.
Turner’s trial is scheduled to begin Sept. 29.