Former congressman Mel Reynolds pleaded not guilty today to charges of possessing pornographic images and videos, two days after his arrest at a hotel in Zimbabwe.
The state-owned newspaper The Herald reported that Reynolds was found with pornography when he was arrested in the southern African country on Monday. Possession of pornography is illegal in Zimbabwe, and Reynolds faces a maximum 2-year jail term or a fine if convicted.
Francis Mabika, an assistant regional immigration officer, said Reynolds had been initially picked up for living in Zimbabwe without a valid visa.
If Reynolds is convicted of violating Zimbabwe's immigration laws, he could be deported, his lawyer said.
Lawyer Arthur Gurira entered a "not guilty" plea on behalf of Reynolds, who sat motionless in the dock.
Gurira asked the magistrate court to allow his client to seek medical attention for an unspecified illness and said he would apply on Thursday for his release from detention.
Gurira said he was also trying to convince Reynolds to plead guilty to all the charges.
"I am still trying to persuade him to plead guilty to all the charges. They are not that serious. I believe he will get a fine on the pornography charge because he never caused them (the pictures and videos) to be published," Gurira said.
Asked by reporters as he arrived at the courthouse how he had been treated in police custody, Reynolds replied: "Fine". The former Illinois congressman, who wore a creased gray suit, also said he did not have a lawyer to represent him.
The allegations are yet another mark on the sullied reputation of the former Rhodes scholar and one-time rising star in the Democratic Party, who was tried and jailed in the U.S. almost 20 years ago for having sex with an underage campaign worker and soliciting child pornography.
State prosecutors charge that Reynolds had been caught with "nude pictures and videos of naked women and men having sexual intercourse" on his mobile phone, according to the copy of the charge sheet seen by Reuters.
Reynolds was arrested Monday at the Bronte Hotel in the capital city of Harare, a hotel manager told the Tribune.
"Gentlemen came in yesterday, they took him and related that they are police," the manager, Mitchelin Thomas, said when reached by phone on Tuesday.
Mabika said Reynolds has been in Zimbabwe since November. Reynolds could not be reached for comment.
The Herald reported that Reynolds had racked up $24,500 in bills at two local hotels. Thomas told the Tribune that Reynolds had not gone over the discretionary spending limit set by the Bronte hotel, and that the hotel had no role in his arrest.
Reynolds, 62, was born in Mound Bayou, Miss., and rose from a childhood in poverty to England’s prestigious Oxford University, where he earned a law degree. He was elected to Congress in 1992, and was indicted on charges of criminal sexual assault, obstruction of justice and child pornography in his first term.
He was convicted and jailed in that case in 1995 and was later convicted of misusing campaign funds and defrauding banks, federal crimes that earned him an additional prison sentence.
President Bill Clinton commuted Reynolds’ fraud sentence in 2001, with two years remaining to be served. After his release, Reynolds tried repeatedly to regain his congressional seat, including an attempt last year to succeed disgraced former Rep. Jesse Jackson Jr.
Reynolds acknowledged at the time that he had made "mistakes," but said his past crimes "shouldn't be a life sentence."
Reynolds has been working in recent years to recast himself as an American liaison to African business interests.
The Herald quoted Reynolds as saying Monday that he was surprised by his arrest because "I have been in this country 17 times where I have done a lot of work for the people including the fight against sanctions.
"I misplaced my passport but I found it, implying that I am not certain if I breached immigration laws against this country,” he said, according to The Herald, after asking the officers to give him his mobile phone and laptop.
Reynolds was recently involved in a deal to construct a $145 million five-star Hilton Hotel and office complex in Zimbabwe, The Herald reported. He was pictured last year standing alongside government officials in a Herald report about the launch of the hotel construction. A spokeswoman for Hilton, based in McLean, Va., had no immediate comment. When given written questions on Tuesday by the Tribune about Reynolds' reported involvement in its Zimbabwe hotel development, Hilton officials did not respond.
Last June, the South African news outlet the Mail & Guardian Online reported that Reynolds was working with Chicago powerbroker Elzie Higginbottom on potential business pursuits in Zimbabwe.
When Higginbottom led a delegation of Chicago businesspeople to Zimbabwe in November 2011, Reynolds acted as Higginbottom’s spokesperson, the Mail & Guardian reported.
Reynolds praised Zimbabwe dictator Robert Mugabe, calling him "one of the last lions of Africa that brought freedom to the people of this great continent," and scolded the U.S. for imposing sanctions on the country.
The remarks drew a strong rebuke from Higginbottom at the time.
"We can assume no responsibility for comments he (Reynolds) made in Zimbabwe or elsewhere about his political/professional affiliations," Higginbottom said, according to the Mail & Guardian
Higginbottom could not be reached for comment Tuesday.
Kim Geiger reported from Chicago and Katherine Skiba from Washington. Reuters contributed.
Twitter: @kimgeiger @katherineskiba
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