As a packed D.C. courtroom cleared Wednesday, the Rev. Jesse L. Jackson, the legendary civil rights leader, held his namesake son in a long embrace. The extended Jackson family had shown up, sisters and brothers and other relatives, taking over the first three rows of the marble federal courtroom.
Moments earlier, Jesse L. Jackson Jr., a once-promising Illinois congressman, had been sentenced to prison for stealing hundreds of thousands of dollars in campaign money to fund an extravagant lifestyle.
In an emotional hearing that capped Jackson’s precipitous downfall, the longtime House member said he would serve as an example to all of Congress for failing to separate his personal life from his political activities, and that he “could not have been more wrong.”
“I misled the American people, I misled the House of Representatives,” Jackson said as he dabbed his eyes with a pile of tissues. “I was wrong and I do not fault anyone.”
Jackson, 48, was sentenced to 2 1/2 years and his wife, Sandra Stevens Jackson, 49, to a term of 12 months. The couple pleaded guilty in February to using about $750,000 in campaign funds to pay for items from the pedestrian to the luxurious: car repairs and trips to Costco, in addition to fur wraps and a gold-plated Rolex watch.
As the Jackson family looked on, the former congressman asked to serve his term at a facility not near Chicago or Washington but in Alabama, “far away from everybody for a while,” he said through tears.
U.S. District Judge Amy Berman Jackson, who is no relation, said Jackson and his wife, a former Chicago alderman, used campaign money as a “personal piggy bank” and that they were “supposed to live up to a higher level of integrity.”
“There may be blurred lines for Congress to follow when their lives are political. This case did not come near those areas,” she said after a hearing that lasted more than four hours.
“This was a knowing, organized joint misconduct that was repeated over many years.”
Even as prosecutors asked the judge for stiffer sentences of four years for Jackson and 18 months for his wife, they acknowledged the wasted opportunity his demise represented for someone with so many privileges and talents.
Having an iconic father came with expectations and pressures, Jackson’s lawyer Reid H. Weingarten and the judge noted.
“While you were born into a family that could introduce you to world leaders, you were also burdened with the mantle of what you’ve called great expectations from the moment you were given your name,” said the judge.
The public fall of the Illinois Democrat began when Jackson was implicated in allegations that then-governor Rod Blagojevich (D) tried to sell to the highest bidder an interim appointment to the Senate seat vacated by president-elect Barack Obama. Jackson was not charged, but prosecutors investigated allegations that he directed his fundraiser to bring in millions for the governor.
Jackson’s personal life was unraveling, too. Before resigning from the House in mid-November, he disappeared from Washington for several weeks. He later announced that he was being treated for depression and released a statement saying he suffered from bipolar disorder.
The defense team told the judge that a shorter term was critical to Jackson’s mental health and that a lengthy sentence would be “devastating” to the couple’s two children, age 13 and 9.
Prosecutors took issue with what they described as limited information from Jackson’s doctors about why he could not receive the mental health treatment he needs while incarcerated. Jackson “provided no evidence that any causal link exists between his mental health condition and his criminal conduct,” they said.
Jackson’s attorneys said he should also be judged for his 17-year career in Congress and record of advocating for some of Chicago’s poorest residents. Nearly a dozen members of Congress wrote letters on his behalf, as did some constituents.
The courthouse also was inundated with dozens of letters from Chicago-area residents who urged the judge to send a strong message against public corruption.
Prosecutors said Jackson should not get credit for doing his job as a public servant. In court Wednesday, Assistant U.S. Attorney Matthew Graves called Jackson’s crimes “staggering,” in part because the couple had sufficient independent financial resources, earning nearly $350,000 in 2011.
Before announcing the couple’s prison terms, the judge said there was no indication that their serial spending of campaign money was the result of compulsive or binge spending, in part because both were deeply involved.
“It’s impossible to chalk up any of this to a periodic loss of control,” she said.
In the end, the judge gave both husband and wife sentences below the federal guidelines, saying she had considered their character and community contributions and that anything more would be “excessive.”
The former congressman will report to prison on or after Nov. 1 and his wife will serve her term after his release. Jackson could serve less than his full sentence if he receives credit for good behavior. The judge also ordered the couple to forfeit $750,000, and Jackson must perform 500 hours of community service.
The plea agreement that Jackson signed this year outlined the extent to which the couple did not distinguish between their personal and political finances.
The Jacksons admitted using campaign credit cards to make about 3,100 personal purchases over seven years starting in August 2005. Among the expenses: a $466 dinner at the Mandarin Oriental’s CityZen restaurant, $10,000 for multiple flat-screen TVs and DVD players from Best Buy and $2,300 in transportation services at Disney World.
The father and son addressed reporters separately on the steps of the courthouse just blocks from the Capitol. The elder Jackson spoke of his son’s struggle with mental illness, saying that a year ago, “I thought we may have lost him.”
“He did not even use that as an excuse; he was remorseful,” Jackson said. Still, he added, the illness’s “potential to affect behavior is interesting. I’m glad the judge, in her own way, took it into account.”
The younger Jackson appeared visibly relieved after the judge announced his prison term, smiling slightly as he stood with his lawyer at the courtroom lectern.
In letters to the judge, Jackson’s parents had tried to provide insight into their son’s conduct. His mother, Jacqueline Jackson, wrote: “Growing up in the shadow of his father, Jesse Jr. has always tried desperately to live up to the expectations we have had for him. I think perhaps too hard, he has tried.”