A South Side man was sentenced to 15 months in federal prison Tuesday for illegally lobbying on behalf of top Zimbabwe government officials in violation of U.S. economic sanctions.
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 said Turner’s attempts to appear humanitarian was nothing but a sham.
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” flaunt U.S. policies and get 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 oppressive regime 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, Zimbabwe officials agreed to pay $3.4 million to Turner and longtime friend Prince Asiel Ben Israel for their lobbying efforts after they bragged about close ties to Barack Obama after his 2008 election as president.
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 that the trip may have violated 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. representatives from Chicago, but the effort ultimately failed.
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 last 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 the plight of the people in Africa has direct links to entrenched issues of racism and poverty in American cities, including violence-plagued black neighborhoods like Englewood and South Shore. 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.
Turner 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. He also noted that Mugabe was rich before the sanctions and has grown only wealthier since they were imposed.
But prosecutors presented evidence that belied Turner’s claims 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, according to prosecutors.
“To say he is a humanitarian is a sham,” Assistant U.S. Attorney Barry Jonas said. “He’s actually out for himself to make money.”
Records show that Turner, who used to go by the name Clarence Turner Jr., was charged in 1985 with passport fraud as part of a sweeping federal investigation of members of the Chicago-based Black Hebrew Israelites. Turner and Ben Israel were known to be high-ranking members of the group. Ben Israel, who was also known then as Warren Brown, also was charged in that case, according to Tribune reports.
Bucklo said she did not consider that conviction in her sentence because it was too long ago.
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