By MICHAEL TARM, AP Legal Affairs Writer
CHICAGO (AP) — A federal judge Thursday handed former U.S. Rep. Mel Reynolds a six-month prison sentence for not filing tax returns for income on consulting work from Africa, telling the Harvard graduate he had “squandered” opportunities to be something better in life.
Judge Robert Gettleman noted how Reynolds, 66, rose from poverty in Mississippi to become a Rhodes Scholar and then a member of Congress. The judge said he could recall thinking to himself in the early 1990s that Reynolds had tremendous promise.
“It’s a tragedy that you squandered the opportunities you had and the type of person you could have become,” he said.
The judge alluded, not just to Reynolds’ tax case, but to his 1995 statutory rape conviction for having sex with a 16-year-old campaign worker. Later, he was convicted of concealing debts and diverting money meant for voter registration drives into his election campaign.
With credit for two months served in jail, the Chicago Democrat will end up serving closer to four months behind bars.
Reynolds had argued he shouldn’t be imprisoned at all, saying a year of probation would have been the right sentence.
“To put me in jail serves what purpose?” he asked the judge. “To teach me a lesson? … I’ve been taught about this racist society … every day of my life.”
Reynolds, who acted as his own attorney, argued it was unfair to give too much weight to his convictions in the 1990s in calculating a sentence for his conviction at a bench trial last year on four misdemeanor counts of not filing tax returns. Prosecutors say the undeclared income was money made consulting for Chicago businessmen in Africa.
“The question is: How long does a person have to pay for mistakes?” Reynolds asked about the older crimes. At other periods in his life, he had been in the military and raised three children, he said. And he added, “I wasn’t just living my life as a wheeler-dealer.”
Prosecutor Georgia Alexakis had asked for at least two years behind bars, citing what she described as Reynolds’ decades-long pattern of flouting the law.
“There are aspects of the defendant’s life that are … laudatory,” said “But the good doesn’t outweigh the bad.”
The maximum penalty Reynolds faced was four years in prison.
Reynolds also spoke about growing up in Mississippi in what he said “was the poorest city in the poorest county in America.” He described getting shot at during a campaign in the early ’90s, saying he still grappled with the lingering trauma. In earlier court filings, he said recent financial hardships have left him “virtually homeless,” often scrambling to find places to stay.
Gettleman expressed bewilderment at Reynolds’ descent from political star to convict within just a few years in the 1990s. Reynolds won his 2nd Congressional District in 1992 and resigned in 1995 after the statutory rape conviction.
The judge said he hoped Reynolds would use his time in prison to reassess his life, telling him: “It will give you some time to think where you go from here.”
Reynolds, who will report to prison later, told reporters outside court that he already knew where he would go after prison.
“I’m going home to Africa,” he said. “I’ve given up on America because how long do African-Americans put up with this nonsense?”