AFRICANGLOBE – A South Side man was sentenced to 15 months in federal prison Tuesday for “illegally lobbying” on behalf of top Zimbabwe government officials in an attempt to lift U.S. economic sanctions against the southern African nation.
Before the sentence was handed down, C. Gregory Turner, 72, made lengthy remarks in which he described his actions as “reckless” but well-meaning, saying he intended to help the destitute people of Zimbabwe and invoking everything from genocide in Rwanda to the recent social unrest in Ferguson, Mo.
“It was never my intention to circumvent the U.S. government,” Turner told U.S. District Judge Elaine Bucklo. “I’m sorry for the mistake, but I am not sorry for attempting to help 14 million people who are starving.”
But prosecutors claim Turner’s effort to appear humanitarian was a fraud.
Turner’s attorneys had asked Bucklo for a sentence of home confinement, but the judge said she had “to send a message that you can’t just” flout U.S. policies and expect a slap on the wrist.
A federal jury in October acquitted Turner of two counts of failing to register with the U.S. attorney general as an agent of a foreign power. But the jury convicted him of a conspiracy count for acting on behalf of longtime Zimbabwe President Robert Mugabe’s government by organizing a delegation of Illinois lawmakers to push for the lifting of sanctions imposed by the Bush administration in 2003.
According to the charges, Turner met multiple times in Africa with Zimbabwe government officials, including Mugabe, between late 2008 and early 2010. Zimbabwe officials agreed to pay $3.4 million to Turner and longtime friend Prince Asiel Ben Israel for their lobbying efforts after they allegedly embellished their ties to Barack Obama after his 2008 election as president, prosecutors said.
In early December 2008, Turner and Ben Israel arranged for a delegation to travel to Zimbabwe. After the delegation’s return, Obama’s transition team alerted the FBI over its concerns over possible violations of the sanctions, according to prosecutors.
According to the charges, Turner and Ben Israel tried to arrange another trip to Africa in 2009 with Illinois Sen. Donne Trotter and two U.S. congressmen from Chicago, but the effort ultimately failed.
Testifying at the trial, Trotter said he twice traveled with Turner and Ben Israel to Zimbabwe to meet with Mugabe and other government officials, but he denied authorizing Turner to sign letters on his behalf promising top Zimbabwe officials that he would lobby the president to end the U.S. sanctions.
The case was filled with twists as it neared trial, including defense efforts to take a video deposition of Mugabe when he visited New York in September to participate in a United Nations conference. Turner’s attorneys also argued the jury should see a clandestine video recording of then-Sen. Joseph Biden shaking hands with one of Mugabe’s top officials at a meeting at the U.S. Capitol in 2006.
Ben Israel pleaded guilty last year and was sentenced to 7 months in prison.
In his statement to the court, Turner said he felt he was exercising his constitutional rights to petition his government for a redress of grievances by working with politicians to end the Zimbabwe sanctions. He also cited his efforts to bring an organic soybean-growing program to Zimbabwe — which he said is now producing soy milk and bread for thousands on a daily basis —– as evidence of his good intentions.
But prosecutors allegedly presented evidence that belied Turner’s claims that his actions were all for good. After Obama’s election, Turner attempted to sell an interview with first lady Michelle Obama to a journalist in Ghana for $200,000, prosecutors said. He also was involved in get-rich schemes involving diamond mining and financing tobacco exports, they claim.
“To say he is a humanitarian is a sham,” Assistant U.S. Attorney Barry Jonas barked. “He’s actually out for himself to make money.”
By: Jason Meisner