(MCT) — WASHINGTON — Prosecutors were tougher with former Rep. Jesse Jackson Jr. than against his wife, Sandi, because they viewed him as the one who enabled the couple’s seven-year $750,000 spending binge in which campaign funds were spent on luxury goods, celebrity memorabilia, spa treatments and travel.
Federal prosecutor Ronald Machen Jr. said in an interview that the Chicago Democrat was the “most culpable” of the two Jacksons. “He enabled this entire thing to take place,” Machen said. “He was the bigger name. When people gave money to that campaign, they were giving money because of him.”
On Wednesday, Jackson, who resigned in November, and his wife, a Chicago alderman until she resigned last month, made tearful, back-to-back guilty pleas to felony counts in a courtroom blocks from the Capitol. Both could land in prison.
A day after the pleas, Machen, 43, U.S. attorney for the District of Columbia, sat down with the Tribune to take stock of the case, saying he was struck by the duration of the crimes and the couple’s extravagant tastes.
“It’s indulgence in the excess,” he said. “It’s so over the top.”
Jackson’s spending and cover-up led to a guilty plea Wednesday to one felony count of conspiracy to commit false statements, wire fraud and mail fraud.
Machen said of Jackson.: “He had some unique personal whims, and he believed that campaign funds could be used to satisfy them.”
Sandi Jackson, who pleaded guilty to a felony tax count, was not a “focal point” in the case “until more recently,” the prosecutor said.
Machen was asked to address two key questions: What might have motivated the two? And what made them think they’d get away with it?
The prosecutor said greed — and habit — came into play. At some point, the behavior becomes so commonplace that people “don’t view it as theft because they become so used to it. The more you do it, the easier it becomes just to continue to do it. And when it’s not questioned or brought to light, you can just kind of go down this path, and that’s what happened here.”
He declined to disclose when the investigation of the Jacksons began or what triggered it.
The Jacksons “did get away with it for a long time,” he said, but crimes like the Jacksons’ “do leave financial trails.”
Speaking about his office’s investigations in general, he said, “We do get tips. We investigate those, and if there’s something there, we follow up vigorously.”
He said the Jackson investigation was run out of Washington, not in Chicago, with FBI agents and IRS criminal investigators, and he said his office was “very aggressive, very creative” in its tactics.
An aspect that made this case particularly unusual was that while federal authorities were investigating Jackson, he was undergoing treatment for mental problems. His medical leave was announced last June, when “exhaustion” was cited. Later it was announced that Jackson suffered from bipolar disorder.
After Jackson’s guilty plea, his defense lawyer said his health problems were a factor in his crimes.
Machen said he “has an open mind” about what the defense will argue at sentencing — Jackson’s sentencing hearing is June 28 and his wife’s is July 1 — but it was hard to “imagine how you can explain away seven years of criminal conduct through a recent condition, especially when he was functioning as a congressman until very recently.”
Jackson could face 46 to 57 months in prison, while Sandi Jackson could face one to two years. But the judge has discretion to go outside those sentencing guidelines.
Six other people, identified in court papers only as as Persons A through F, were linked to the couple’s wrongdoing. None of them has immunity, Machen said. Were the six cooperating witnesses? “I don’t want to comment on that,” he said.
Machen said the judge will have discretion in meting out sentences, and more about the Jacksons will be included in the confidential presentence reports done by a federal probation officer, who will “really dig deep” into their lives, assessing their behavior and “what sort of future risk they could be.”
He said that while the criminal charges showed Jackson “at his absolute worst,” he’s “always shown remorse, and I think that’s one of the reasons he came forward so quickly” and cooperated with federal investigators. Sandi Jackson, he added, “worked to resolve this quickly.”