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Congressman Charged With Sex Crimes : Indictment: Rep. Mel Reynolds of Chicago is accused of having an affair with an underage campaign worker. He has denied any wrongdoing.

August 20, 1994|JUDY PASTERNAK | TIMES STAFF WRITER

CHICAGO — U.S. Rep. Mel Reynolds (D-Ill.) was indicted Friday on charges that he had sex with an underage campaign volunteer, induced her to recant her accusations and to leave the state, lied to investigators and tried to influence witnesses to lie to the county grand jury.

Reynolds also is reportedly facing separate investigations into his handling of campaign finances in 1992. Marc Kurstin, the manager of a currency exchange here, confirmed published accounts that the Reynolds campaign cashed thousands of dollars' worth of checks in small amounts from individual contributors.

Reynolds had no comment on Friday, but has heatedly denied any wrongdoing, replying in detail to specific charges--both sexual and financial--in interviews with local newspapers.

Edward M. Genson and Terence P. Gillespie, Reynolds' attorneys, said Friday in a statement that "the charges are utterly lacking in any substance," adding that "we are extremely confident that the congressman will be fully vindicated."

The 42-year-old Reynolds, a former Rhodes scholar who ousted a 12-year incumbent to gain his house seat in 1992, had been enjoying a highly visible first term. He appeared on "Nightline" to discuss gun control and briefed President Clinton on his travels to Rwandan refugee camps in Zaire.

A protege of fellow Chicago Rep. Dan Rostenkowski--himself under indictment on unrelated charges--Reynolds was the only freshman appointed to the prestigious House Ways and Means Committee.

He is seeking reelection from a district that includes parts of the city's South Side and southern suburbs.

Friday's indictment centers on an alleged consensual affair which the accuser said began during Reynolds' campaign in June of 1992 and continued into 1993, when she turned 17, according to Cook County State's Atty. Jack O'Malley, who spoke at a press conference at a South Side courthouse.

The accuser, now in a witness protection program, approached police early in June. "One of her concerns frankly was whether or not she could obtain justice," O'Malley said. "She was making those allegations against a very powerful man."

Later that month and in July, O'Malley contended, Reynolds persuaded the accuser to sign a letter recanting her charges. O'Malley said he then asked her to get him a lewd photograph of a 15-year-old girl, and had her hide out of state from investigators. The accuser later changed her mind again and said her original account was true.

The Chicago Sun-Times reported last week that Reynolds distributed copies of the accuser's retraction during interviews lasting several hours at the newspaper's office.

At his own press conference last week, Reynolds said he never had sex with his accuser and that she was "troubled." He said that the investigation was racially motivated--he is African American--and also stemmed from the disgruntlement of former employees.

"He is wrong," O'Malley said in response.

In returning the indictment, the Cook County Grand Jury decided that Reynolds should face 20 charges, including two counts of criminal sexual assault under an Illinois law that prohibits an adult from engaging in sex with a person under the age of 18 who is in their "trust, authority or supervision." A conviction on that charge would bring a mandatory prison sentence of four to 15 years, O'Malley said.

The other charges are eight counts of aggravated criminal sexual abuse, one count of solicitation of child pornography, three counts of child pornography, five counts of obstructing justice and one count of communicating with witnesses in an attempt to dissuade them from testifying truthfully before the grand jury.

Convictions on those charges could be satisfied by probation, O'Malley said.

Reynolds was in Washington on Friday, O'Malley said. Law enforcement officials said they had expected him to be in Chicago. The terms of his surrender will be negotiated at a bond hearing scheduled for Monday. "Out of respect for the office of congressman," O'Malley said, "we will not arrest him."

Reynolds was born in Mound Bayou, Miss., and moved to Chicago with his family when he was 9. He studied at Yale University, graduated from the University of Illinois and studied law at Oxford University. He worked for Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.) in his failed presidential campaign in 1980 and in the Rev. Jesse Jackson's 1984 campaign as the candidate's traveling assistant.

He defeated Rep. Gus Savage in the 1992 primary election--after two earlier unsuccessful challenges--by appealing to moderates who had grown disenchanted with the incumbent's criticism of whites and, increasingly, Jews.

Reynolds capitalized on a redrawn district, with nearly half its residents living outside the city. The population is 68% black, 27% white and 7% Latino. It encompasses poor, working-class and affluent neighborhoods.

Times researcher John Beckham contributed to this story.

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