Two US men face criminal charges for illegally lobbying on behalf of Zimbabwe President Robert Mugabe with the aim of helping lift US government sanctions against the African country, prosecutors said Tuesday.
Prince Asiel Ben Israel, 72, and Greg Turner, 71, are accused of telling Mugabe they would enlist the assistance of public officials who "purportedly had close connections with then President-elect Barack Obama," prosecutors said in a press release.
The men allegedly arranged for at least five "fact-finding vacations" to Zimbabwe, in which US officiates, both federal and state-level, met with Mugabe and others, the prosecutors said.
The case came to the attention of authorities when members of Obama's transition team alerted the FBI. They had become suspicious after a state legislator called twice hoping to speak with the team about his recent visit to Zimbabwe.
Economic sanctions imposed by president George W. Bush in 2003, and extended every year by Obama, do not prohibit US officials from traveling to Zimbabwe or from meeting with "designated" officials, such as Mugabe and Reserve Bank governor Gideon Gono, to discuss the sanctions.
However, the sanctions do bar US citizens and residents from providing lobbying, public relations and media consultation services to the "designated" nationals.
Ben Israel and Turner are accused of contacting the Mugabe government shortly after Obama's November 2008 election to offer their services for $3.4 million.
Over the next year, they allegedly got several unnamed state and federal lawmakers -- including a Chicago-based member of the US House of Representatives -- to write letters expressing their interest or commitment to helping Mugabe and Gono.
They are also accused of arranging for Mugabe to meet with federal and state government officials in New York and attempting to get Gono and other Zimbabwe officials on a list of speakers at a forum hosted by a House member from California.
The two men face up to 20 years in jail and a $1 million fine for violating the sanctions.
Ben Israel appeared in a federal court in Chicago Tuesday and was released on bond. Turner is believed to be living in Israel and a warrant was issued for his arrest.