Jesse Jackson Jr. Sentenced To 30 Months in Prison

Former congressman to surrender on Nov. 1

Former Rep. Jesse Jackson Jr. was sentenced Wednesday to 30 months in prison and a 36-month term of supervised release for misusing $750,000 of campaign cash on personal items. Former Chicago Ald. Sandi Jackson was sentenced to a year for tax fraud.

"You stand here not just because you violated the law, but because you violated the trust of the people of Chicago," Judge Amy Berman Jackson told Jackson Jr.

"Your conduct stained not only your reputation," the judge said, "but the way all elected officials are viewed."

The former congressman in February pleaded guilty to charges he spent the money, as well to charges of conspiracy to commit wire fraud, mail fraud and false statements. Sandi Jackson pleaded guilty on the same day.

During Wednesday's sentencing hearing, Jackson Jr. choked up as he apologized to his family, specifically to his father, Rev. Jesse Jackson, and his mother.

"I misled the American people," he said in a statement to the court. "I misled the House of Representatives. I misled the media by filing my reports. I was wrong. And I don't fault anyone. And I hope even those who still support me don't hold any judgment against you."

Jackson said his wife was a victim of a "culture" he allowed to exist in his campaign and said if probation is not available to her, "give me her time."

Jackson requested that his kids "not suffer the consequences of my actions," but also that his sentence be served far away from Chicago, for what amounted to self-exile at a prison in Alabama.

"I ask for Alabama so I can be as far away from everybody for a while as I can be," he said. "I want to make it a little inconvenient for people to get to me."

The judge may fulfill that request. But the former congressman's plea to spare his wife fell on deaf ears.

Sandi Jackson begged the judge to allow her to stay home with her children, and she tearfully apologized to her family, friends and former Chicago constituents.

"I've grieved every day, every single day, over the fact that my mistakes have resulted in my end of service as an alderman," she said. "It's caused disappointment in my community, and it's put my family unit in peril. ...  I stand here today asking for mercy."

The judge found it hard to conceal her disgust.

"You held yourself out as a leader and an example," she said, noting the opportunities Jackson had squandered in making poor decisions.  She reminded the former 7th ward alderman that plenty of other mothers who had never been offered such chances in life were now doing time on various crimes.

Indeed, just to underline the fact that she was sentencing Mrs. Jackson to prison, the judge noted that she was giving her exactly 12 months, "not a year and a day," she said, which would have made her eligible for time off for good behavior.

In an unusual move, the judge took a recess in court to allow the parties to decide who would report to prison first.  When court resumed and attorney Dan Webb told her that Jesse Jr. should be the first to go, she bristled, but eventually agreed.

"I have my thoughts about what would be best for the children," she said. "But they are children I have never met." 

Jesse Jackson Jr. will surrender to prison on Nov. 1.

Ironically, after Sandi Jackson made such a tearful plea to stay close to her children, her attorney requested assignment at a correctional facility in Florida.

Earlier in the day, Jesse Jackson Jr.'s attorney, Reid Weingarten, tried to put the former congressman's crimes in perspective.

"This is not a typical victim," he said, referring to the campaign committee which Jackson admitted looting.  "There are not widows and orphans surrounding the building calling for his head."

"This is not Madoff," he said.  "This is not a Ponzi scheme."

But in that regard, the judge was unmoved.

"People who describe themselves as housewives and retirees, did not take out their checkbooks and write checks to you to outfit your house," she told Jackson.  "You used your campaign as your personal piggy bank."

The former congressman's medical history became a focal point of the sentencing hearing. Jackson took a leave of absence from Congress last summer and was later treated for bipolar depression.

On Tuesday, the government agreed to leave many details of the former congressman's medical records out of public court filings. But prosecutor Matt Graves said there's no agreement from his doctors about what exactly ails Jackson.

Federal prosecutors said they will revisit the issue of seizing the couple's two homes after Oct 25. Prosecutors announced in June they wanted to include the Jacksons' two homes in forfeiture proceedings as they seek $750,000 in restitution.

Weingarten objected to the idea of appointing a lawyer to monitor the forfeiture issue, saying Jackson is working hard to satisfy the $750,000 before he has to go away to prison.

"My client wants to be able to feed his children," he said.

Judge Berman Jackson, no relation to the Jackson family, ruled she would not order restitution in the case, saying the campaign is Jackson's "alter ego" and there is no other real victim. Jackson still must pay forfeiture.

"There is no question that the defendant should not profit," the judge said, "and that his ill gotten gains should be completely disgorged."

The judge deferred ruling on restitution in Sandi Jackson's case. "The bottom line is that restitution in her case is not mandatory, it's discretionary."

One of the greatest ironies of the case is that Jackson's behavior was likely discovered in an investigation where he faced no charges:  the allegation that he attempted to buy the Barack Obama Senate seat from then-governor Rod Blagojevich.

But even with Jackson's fall from grace, and as extreme as his behavior apparently was, it does not represent the norm on Capitol Hill, according to Stanley Brand, former House Counsel.

"It's by a magnitude much larger than anything we've seen recently," he said Tuesday. "It's an outlier. ... It's on the edge. It's far afield from what I think the conventional behavior of most members is."

Still, prosecutors allege, and Jackson admitted, that the wholesale theft from his campaign fund went undetected for at least seven years.

"The FEC never caught this stuff," said Paul Ryan of the Campaign Legal Center, a Washington watchdog group. He faults a system where the Federal Election Commission, the very agency charged with enforcing election law, has no authority to do spot checks of political funds.

"As long as you're a confident criminal, as long as you submit campaign reports with the Ts crossed and the Is dotted, you're not likely to be caught by the FEC," he said. "Mr. Jackson covered his tracks well enough to get away with this lawbreaking year after year after year."

Ryan argues the FEC should be given the authority to perform random audits of campaign funds, much as convicted felons and even professional athletes are subjected to random drug tests.

"That would deter some of this activity, if a committee knew there was a chance they would get caught," he said.

Separately on Tuesday, Martha's Table, a Washington, D.C. food pantry, sent a letter to Judge Amy Berman Jackson, saying they would welcome Sandi Jackson as a volunteer if she is sentenced to perform community service.

The agency says it often uses ex-offenders as volunteers, and has no prior relationship with Mrs. Jackson.

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