Turner and Ben Israel claimed to have access to powerful public officials, the DOJ said in a statement on Wednesday, including President Obama.
A month after his election, the Obama transition team reported to the FBI an internal email string mentioning a meeting request from an unnamed Illinois State legislator who had just returned from Zimbabwe.
The State representative “wants a phone call from [transition team officials] regarding a meeting he had last week in Zimbabwe,” the redacted email reads. “I am not sure who to pass this on to but it’s the second time they have called.”
Obama’s transition team forwarded the note to federal law enforcement “based on its concerns that State Representative A may have violated sanctions by traveling to Zimbabwe,” according to the DOJ.
Federal officials allege the men “arranged for trips by federal and state government officials to meet with President Mugabe and other Zimbabwean officials,” including setting up visas for the officials to visit the United States in 2008 and 2009. They also failed to apply with the Treasury Department to engage in services with foreign nationals.
No lawmakers have been charged with a crime, but investigations are ongoing. The men have been charged with violating the International Emergency Economic Powers Act and, if convicted, face up to a $1 million fine and 20 years in prison.
Charges in the U.S. District Court in Chicago were unsealed on Tuesday, detailing a “consulting agreement” dated Nov. 26, 2008, that mandated an initial $90,000 payment and three additional $1.12 million installments for the services. In December, however, Israel’s U.S. bank blocked a wire transfer from “a Zimbabwe official affiliated with ZANU-PF,” Mugabe’s government, according to the Justice Department.
Turner and Ben Israel engaged in public relations, consulting and lobbying, federal law enforcement says, and even attempted in 2009 to have Gono and Zimbabwean policymakers attend and speak at an “issues forum” in Washington sponsored by a former member of Congress from California.
Ben Israel allegedly continued to engage with the Zimbabwean government throughout that year, seeking payment, the DOJ claims, citing emails sent to Gobo detailing further meetings with U.S. lawmakers.
Turner emailed a Zimbabwean official letters in September 2009 that the two Illinois state legislators had written earlier that summer, “expressing their commitment to assist President Mugabe and Gono,” according to the DOJ release. “State Senator A’s letter stated that he would use his leadership position with the international committee for the National Black Caucus of State Legislators to organize a delegation to travel to Zimbabwe.”
The two allegedly continued lobbying lawmakers throughout that year, including urging a delegation to again travel to the country. That trip was canceled in December 2009.
President George W. Bush initially ordered the sanctions against the individuals in 2003, and they have been continuously renewed under President Obama, most recently in March. Mugabe has ruled Zimbabwe since 1980.
Independent investigations have charged the 89-year-old leader with using the country’s diamond trade to enrich himself and maintain power.