(MCT) — CHICAGO — Jesse Jackson Jr.’s final act as a public official was to send a Thanksgiving eve resignation letter to the speaker of the House in which he declared that “for 17 years I have given 100 percent of my time, energy and life to public service.”
But federal prosecutors revealed an image of Jackson as less a public servant and more a politician interested in surrounding himself with treasures. A gold-plated Rolex. Furs and cashmere capes. Memorabilia from Michael Jackson, Bruce Lee and Martin Luther King Jr. Luxuries out of the reach of the many people trying to stay above the poverty line in Jackson’s former South Side congressional district.
Federal prosecutors in Washington alleged that Jackson and his wife, former Ald. Sandi Jackson, misused more than $750,000 in campaign funds for their personal benefit over nearly seven years starting in 2005. She faces her own charge of fraudulently understating the couple’s income on tax returns for six years.
The charges, months in the making, are the latest development in a steady but grand fall for the onetime political power couple.
The son of the Rev. Jesse Jackson once was considered a wunderkind in Chicago politics and a threat to become Chicago mayor. Then he became ensnared in the scandal that brought down former Gov. Rod Blagojevich. Last June, Jackson took a leave of absence from Congress, and bipolar disorder was diagnosed.
Both Jacksons are expected to sign plea deals with prosecutors.
The criminal information issued Friday against Jackson, 47, is filled with details about how he allegedly used his campaign fund as a personal piggy bank.
Prosecutors said Jackson and someone they identified only as “Co-Conspirator 1” attempted to conceal the spending by falsifying financial reports to the U.S. House and campaign reports filed with the Federal Election Commission. The Tribune has identified “Co-Conspirator 1” as Sandi Jackson. She is not charged in her husband’s case.
“The goal of the conspiracy was for Defendant Jesse L. Jackson Jr. and Co-Conspirator 1 to enrich themselves by engaging in a conspiracy and a scheme to defraud in which they used funds donated to the Campaign for their own personal benefit,” prosecutors wrote in their federal filing.
From 2007 to 2009, prosecutors said, Jackson used campaign funds to buy a $43, Rolex watch, more than $9,500 in children’s furniture and more than $5,000 in furs and cashmere capes. He had all the items shipped from Chicago, New Jersey and Beverly Hills, Calif., to his home in Washington, prosecutors said.
Prosecutors also said Jackson filed false federal election documents in 2008 when he stated he spent $1,553 to rent a room at a Chicago museum for a fundraiser when, in fact, he spent it on “porcelain collector’s items.” More recently, Jackson did not disclose $25,000 in 2011 from an unnamed owner of an Alabama company that helped pay down the Jacksons’ personal credit cards.
Jeff Cramer, a Chicago attorney and former federal prosecutor, said the D.C. legal filing makes it clear that prosecutors wanted the public to know the extreme types of items the former congressman purchased, including a Michael Jackson fedora for $4,600 and a “Michael Jackson and Eddie Van Halen guitar” that alone cost $4,000.
“These things were paid for with monies contributed to his campaign fund with the intent to help him to get re-elected and pursue an appropriate political agenda for his district, a district which is currently dealing with very serious issues such as gun violence and economic troubles,” Cramer said. “He used the account like an ATM machine without regard for the outrageous nature of the items.”
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In the South Shore neighborhood that Jackson Jr. represented in Congress and Sandi Jackson represented in the City Council, residents were flabbergasted by the excess of the alleged purchases from a couple who had long said public service was their top priority.
“There are too many people out here suffering,” said Misty Washington, 45, pointing down a South Shore street. “Why didn’t he use the money for something positive to help the people here?”
“Really, furs?” added Tony Marshall, who said he’s lived in the South Shore neighborhood since 1971. “I voted for him — and I wish I could take it back.”
The 2nd Congressional District already had been battered by scandal when Jackson won a 1995 special election to replace Rep. Mel Reynolds after Reynolds was convicted on charges that included federal bank fraud and sexual misconduct with a 16-year-old campaign aide.
Jackson quickly became a rising star in Chicago and Washington, building a robust political organization on the South Side and in the south suburbs while earning seniority in Congress to become the sole member of the Illinois delegation on the powerful House Appropriations Committee.
Jackson routinely toyed with the idea of running against longtime Mayor Richard M. Daley, who feared a powerful African-American opponent, but Jackson chose not to run after Democrats retook the House in 2006.
A year later, Jackson directed his political energies into his wife’s campaign for 7th Ward alderman. Sandi Jackson defeated the daughter of Cook County Commissioner William Beavers, who had been the ward’s alderman for more than two decades.
By 2008, though, Jackson’s reputation had lost some of its luster. He had become known for being a talker instead of a doer. In Illinois, he constantly pushed a third regional airport in Peotone, an idea that never got off the ground. In Washington he got little accomplished other than making sure TV cameras caught him shaking hands with the president on national broadcasts of the annual State of the Union address.
The real downfall began after Barack Obama was elected president and vacated his U.S. Senate seat. Jackson heavily lobbied then-Gov. Blagojevich to appoint him to the post, but Jackson got caught up in the criminal case when federal prosecutors charged Blagojevich with trying to sell the seat. Allegations surfaced that Jackson’s supporters offered to raise as much as $6 million for Blagojevich in return for the governor appointing him to the Senate seat.
Though Jackson was never charged in that case, scandal continued to follow him as a House ethics panel investigated his efforts to obtain the Senate post.
Last March, Jackson won his primary bid for re-election but months later disappeared from the public eye, his whereabouts unknown until his office announced that the congressman had taken a medical leave of absence from Congress two weeks earlier. It was a leave from which he never returned.
At first his aides said he was being treated for exhaustion, but eventually it was disclosed that Jackson had been treated at the Mayo Clinic in Minnesota, where he was diagnosed with bipolar depression.
Jackson still won re-election in November against a little-known Republican challenger in the heavily Democratic district. He vowed to return to office.
“Once the doctors approve my return to work, I will continue to be the progressive fighter you have known for years,” Jackson said that night in a statement. “My family and I are grateful for your many heartfelt prayers and kind thoughts. I continue to feel better every day and look forward to serving you.”
But just weeks later, Jackson resigned as the House ethics panel probe ultimately was overtaken by the federal criminal investigation that resulted in Friday’s charges. During the investigation, authorities also began to look at Sandi Jackson, who resigned as alderman last month.
The congressman’s campaign fund paid Sandi Jackson’s political consulting firm, J. Donatella & Associates, at least $452,500 since 2002, federal campaign reports show. The financial arrangement is not mentioned in court documents.
“One thing that raised my eyebrows a long time ago was the fact that she was getting paid a significant sum of money from her husband’s campaign fund to do so-called consulting work,” said Ald. Joe Moore, 49th. “Most of us call that having a supportive spouse. We don’t pay them money out of our campaign funds to do it.”
But Moore said he doesn’t believe the Jacksons got into politics with the intent of living grandly.
“I think you can enter public service with the altruistic desire to make a difference and to help people and then somewhere along the way you lose your bearings,” he said. “I think when you choose public service as a profession, you have to accept the fact that you can’t live the same kind of lavish lifestyle as some of your friends and your supporters. Some folks are able to handle that better than others.”
On Friday, as the charges were being filed in court, the Jacksons issued separate statements.
Both apologized to their family, friends and supporters, though neither asked for forgiveness from the former constituents who voted the pair into office.
Jackson Jr. did say, however, that he hopes to be known for more than his mistakes.
“And while my journey is not yet complete, it is my hope that I am remembered for the things that I did right,” he said.
(Katherine Skiba, Hal Dardick, Rick Pearson, David Heinzmann and Kim Geiger contributed to this report.)