Once the beneficiary of a soaring political career, former congressman Mel Reynolds is about to go to prison for four months.
Reynolds actually drew a six month sentence on his conviction for failing to file tax returns, but Judge Robert Gettleman Thursday credited him with two months he had already served. And as he imposed sentence, he lamented the former congressman’s fall from grace.
“You have a history that is truly remarkable,” the judge said. “It’s really a tragedy that you squandered the type of opportunities you had.”
Reynolds was convicted of failing to file taxes for four years. He had argued that any revenue he received during the period consisted entirely of compensation for expenses. And in fact, in a last-ditch plea, he actually suggested to Gettleman that the government might owe him a refund.
But that argument fell on deaf ears.
“I’m looking at this as a failure to file tax returns by a man who knew better,” the judge said.
Prosecutors had urged a sentence at the upper end of a guideline range of 21 to 27 months, calling Reynolds’ arguments a “preposterous defense”.
“The defendant knew he had this civic obligation,” Assistant U.S. Attorney Georgia Alexakis told the judge. “He disregarded these responsibilities again and again and again!”
But when it was his turn to speak, Reynolds pointed to his own humble story, which started in a tiny southern town and eventually led to Harvard, a Rhodes Scholarship at Oxford University, and election to the United States Congress.
“My life has not been perfect,” he said. “But I’ve tried my very best.”
Reynolds complained that in their pre-sentencing arguments, the government had brought up his previous Cook County conviction on sex-related charges, and a federal case involving campaign funds.
“How long does a person have to pay for mistakes?” he asked. “I’m standing here with 23 and 21 year old convictions, and that’s being held against me.”
For that, the judge had a quick answer.
“When does your criminal history stop following you?” he said. “It follows you the rest of your life!”
Reynolds was charged three years ago with four misdemeanor counts of failing to file his taxes during a time he was doing business in Africa. And rather than running from the charges, he insisted to the judge he had attempted to cooperate with the investigation.
“I was in a country that doesn’t have a treaty with the U.S.,” he said. “I got on a plane and came back to America!”
In a sometimes rambling statement of his case in open court, Reynolds argued that he should be spared from prison.
“To put me in jail serves what purpose?” he asked the judge. “To teach me a lesson? I’ve been taught a lesson about this racist society every day of my life.”
In the end, Gettleman said jail time was necessary, if not for Reynolds, then to other potential offenders.
“It will give you some time to think about where you go from here,” he said.
After court, Reynolds promised an appeal, and suggested the four months he will do in jail was something of a victory.
“You guys were going crazy with this two years and all that, and it didn’t happen,” he said.
Before departing, the former congressman indicated he has plans to leave the United States, possibly for good.
“Life is what it is,” he said. “I’m done with America---I’m doing this, and I’m going home to Africa.”