The elder Jesse Jackson has grown wealthy these past couple decades mainly by shaking down corporations. One of his sons, former Rep. Jesse Jackson Jr., D-Ill. (see photo), has preferred a different path to wealth: his campaign till. That path is now leading to federal prison. On Wednesday, February 20, the younger Jackson, who served nine terms in Congress before resigning last November 21, pleaded guilty in District of Columbia federal court to diverting about $750,000 in re-election funds to personal use. Jackson, who since last June has been hospitalized twice at the Mayo Clinic for bipolar disorder and other problems, told U.S. District Judge Robert L. Wilkins that in pleading guilty to wire and mail fraud, he had “no interest in wasting the taxpayers’ time or money.” His wife, Sandi, until recently a Chicago city alderwoman, hours later pled guilty to a related tax fraud charge.
In a real sense, Jesse Jackson Jr., now 47, was a child of fate. Like his father, Jesse Jackson Sr., he was born in Greenville, South Carolina. And after his father moved the family to Chicago, he grew up in that city’s South Shore community. The second of five children from his father’s marriage to Jacqueline Jackson, Jesse Jr. inherited more than just a name. By age five he was mimicking his father in a speech atop a milk crate at the headquarters of Jesse Sr.’s Operation PUSH (later known as Rainbow Coalition/PUSH). Like his father, he attended college at North Carolina A&T, where, like his father, he was a football standout. And like his father, he received a master’s degree in seminary school. But rather than become a minister, he chose law school, graduating with a J.D. from the University of Illinois in 1993. A career in politics seemed inevitable. Already, he had racked up extensive time stumping for his father during the latter’s presidential runs of 1984 and 1988.
As an aspiring politician, Jesse Jackson Jr. made the right moves during the second half of the Eighties and the first half of the Nineties. Early on, along with his father and a brother, he got himself arrested during anti-apartheid demonstrations at the South African embassy in Washington, D.C. Later, in the Nineties, he became secretary of the Democratic National Committee’s Black Caucus and the national field director of his father’s National Rainbow Coalition. Among his projects was pressuring the National Basketball Association to step up hiring of blacks for front-office executive and support staff positions. By mid-decade Jesse Jr. had accumulated an impressive resume – at least by standards of the civil rights Left. And he was now married. The presidency was a ways off, but a seat in Congress certainly was achievable. And he didn’t have to look far to find a vacancy.
Illinois’ 2nd congressional district, which encompasses heavily black South Side Chicago and neighboring suburban communities, isn’t the first place where one looks for accountability in government. It definitely wasn’t that when Jesse Jackson Jr. first tossed his hat into the ring for a special December 1995 election. His immediate two-term predecessor, Democratic Rep. Mel Reynolds, had resigned from Congress early that fall following a conviction in August on 12 counts of sexual assault, obstruction of justice and solicitation of child pornography; less than two years later, in April 1997, Reynolds was convicted on 15 unrelated counts of bank fraud and lying to SEC investigators. In both instances, he received a federal prison sentence. (That’s not even including a mountain of civil suits he faced for unpaid bills). Reynolds, for his part, had won his seat in a 1992 election against six-term Democratic Rep. Gus Savage. A rather unlovable eccentric black radical with a penchant for making derogatory remarks about whites and especially Jews, Savage was accused in 1989 of sexually assaulting a female Peace Corps worker during a trip to Zaire. At first, Savage, a close ally of Nation of Islam Minister Louis Farrakhan, denied the allegation, claiming it was an invention of the “racist press.” But a House Ethics Committee investigation later determined he had committed the assault. The committee ultimately decided against recommending disciplinary action because Savage had written a letter of apology.
Jesse Jackson Jr. won an overwhelming victory in that December 1995 special election by a nearly 3-1 margin over Republican challenger-sacrificial lamb Thomas Somer. At age 30, Jackson’s time had arrived. Here, noted media cognescenti, was a breath of fresh air and the symbolic fulfillment of a civil-rights legacy. In 1997, Newsweek named Jackson as one of 100 young adults to watch (the “Century Club”). He was young, bold and idealistic. And his speeches and voting record gave every indication of a man upholding his father’s legacy – such as that legacy was. Early in the Bush administration, he called upon blacks to withhold support for Condoleezza Rice and Colin Powell, supposedly lackeys of President Bush. In 2005, he sponsored a bill to create and acquire for display in the U.S. Capitol a life-size statue of Rosa Parks, a bill that Congress passed and President Bush quickly signed into law. During the sharp economic downturn of 2008, he called for ramping up food stamp subsidies (he would get his wish after Barack Obama had become president). And in 2011, he proposed a constitutional amendment for “equal education rights” which among other things would mandate that every student in America receive an iPad from the federal government. His wife, Sandra, now 49, also was an up and comer. She won a seat as a city alderman in the Chicago general elections of February 2007.
Not only did the rise of Jesse Jackson Jr. presage the presidential election of Barack Obama, to an extent Jackson made that election possible. The two long had worked with each other, as Obama’s Illinois Senate district overlapped with Jackson’s congressional district. Jackson served as a national co-chairman of the Obama campaign in 2008 and gave a prime-time speech at the Democratic National Convention on Obama’s behalf. Alluding to Martin Luther King’s “mountaintop” speech, he noted of the nominee: “I know Barack Obama. I’ve seen his leadership work. I’ve seen the difference he has made in the lives of people across Illinois.” In defending Obama, Jesse Jr. even was willing to cross swords with his father. When Jesse Sr. wrote an op-ed in the Chicago Sun-Times criticizing Obama’s supposed lack of progressive activism, Jackson wrote a letter to the paper defending Obama. He also publicly rebuked his father’s offhand comment (near a live microphone) during the 2008 campaign that he would like to “cut [Obama’s] nuts off.”
If loyalty to political allies was one trait of the younger Jackson, corruptibility was another. As National Legal and Policy Center has described at length, he almost without question was a participant in a web of illegal schemes to raise campaign donations for then-Illinois Democratic Governor Rod Blagojevich during the campaign season of 2008, and the weeks beyond. The reward for such fundraising would be an appointment to a U.S. Senate seat whose vacancy was made possible by Barack Obama’s election as president. Jackson was never charged in that investigation. Yet federal prosecutors had amassed substantial evidence that he had instructed his chief fundraiser, Raghuveer Nayak, to generate $6 million for the governor’s political war chest. Gov. Blagojevich explained his philosophy this way: “A Senate seat is a fucking valuable thing…You don’t just give it away for nothing.” Jackson, knowing how the game was played, appeared willing to do what it took to get that seat.
But the feds had been onto the governor for some time. Based on information gathered by court-approved wiretaps and listening devices, FBI agents during the wee hours of December 9, 2008 arrested Gov. Blagojevich and his chief of staff, John Harris. Any hopes that Jackson would get the job went up in smoke that morning. The next day, in fact, he was contacted by federal prosecutors as to some specifics about Blagojevich’s search for Obama’s replacement. The nod eventually would go to former Illinois State Comptroller and Attorney General Roland Burris. Blagojevich, meanwhile, wouldn’t be long for the political world. In January 2009, the Illinois legislature expelled him from office. And in June 2011, a federal jury, following an earlier mistrial on 23 of 24 charges, found the former governor guilty of 17 of 20 offenses.
Jesse Jackson Jr. dodged a bullet in this affair. But he couldn’t escape a darker personal reality. In June 2012, during his re-election campaign, Jackson, without informing his House colleagues or anyone in the press, took an extended leave of absence. This was most unusual for someone who almost never missed a roll call vote. Across the nation, people were asking, “Where’s Jesse?” It turned out that, among possibly other places, he had checked into the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota. In late July the clinic issued a statement that he was being treated for bipolar disorder, depression and related physical illnesses. The revelations didn’t faze too many voters in his district, who returned him to Congress by an overwhelming margin in the November general election. But Jackson couldn’t savor his victory. Less than three weeks later, he resigned his House seat. Apparently, he had seen another political storm coming.
The storm was about money and the things it buys. Like his father, Jesse Jr. had a fondness for the good life. Indeed, the two had co-written a book published in 1999 titled, “It’s About the Money!: How You Can Get out of Debt, Build Wealth, and Achieve Your Financial Dreams.” With perhaps unintended irony, the Jacksons wrote: “Many of our churches breed material needs, as do many of our public schools, with peer pressure to buy expensive clothing.” Achieving financial dreams, however, can be illegal as well as expensive. Jesse Jackson Jr. might not have been aware of what federal prosecutors and FBI agents would find when in October 2012 they announced a probe into his misuse of campaign donations. But it’s hard to imagine that the investigation wasn’t related to his decision to step down from Congress three months ago, especially given his precarious mental and physical condition. And with a deferred House Ethics Committee investigation now finally getting off the ground, Jackson sensed the end was near.
The results of the probe and the resulting court case revealed Rep. and Mrs. Jackson to be possessed of varied interests. According to the written summary of the prosecution, Jackson made around $750,000 in unauthorized withdrawals from campaign funds starting in or around August 2005, mainly via more than 3,000 credit card transactions. There were the mundane purchases, of course – dry cleaning, restaurant meals, and trips to Costco. But there also were expenditures that fell under the “What the hell?” category. The latter included:
$26,700 – Michael Jackson memorabilia, including a $4,600 fedora
$5,000 – fur capes and parkas
$5,000 – a football signed by U.S. presidents
$2,200 – Malcolm X memorabilia
$10,105 – Bruce Lee memorabilia
$10,000 – multiple flat-screen TVs and DVD players from Best Buy
$5,600 – a five-day holistic retreat on Martha’s Vineyard for a family member
$9,588 – children’s furniture
$11,130 – Martin Luther King memorabilia
$43,350 – a gold-plated Rolex watch
The old saying about money goes, “If you’ve got it, flaunt it.” But Jesse Jackson Jr. didn’t have it. Or if he did, he preferred to use what came from other people – like unsuspecting donors. The Federal Election Commission and other authorities weren’t amused. “This was not a momentary lapse or a short streak of compulsive behavior,” said U.S. Attorney Ronald Machen Jr. at a news conference. “He lied many times over many years to hide this fraud from the government and his constituents.”
Jackson, to his credit, took responsibility for his actions. “I did these things,” he stated before Judge Wilkins who had read the bill of particulars. Then, trying to hold back tears, he pleaded guilty to one felony count of conspiracy to commit false statements, mail fraud and wire fraud. His father, from whom he learned much, sat in the front row during the proceedings. In the hallway, after the hearing, the former congressman said to a reporter from the Chicago Sun-Times: “Tell everybody back home I’m sorry I let them down, okay?” Under a plea agreement with prosecutors, he faces anywhere from 46 to 57 months in prison at his sentencing hearing in June. His wife also faces anywhere from a year to two years in prison after pleading guilty to knowingly underreporting income on federal tax returns for 2006 through 2011. As for finding a replacement for Rep. Jackson, that should be resolved soon. A Democratic primary is set for next Tuesday. Cook County Chief Administrative Officer Robin Kelly and former Rep. Debbie Halvorson, in that order, are considered the leading candidates in a crowded field which includes – would you believe? – Mel Reynolds. The winner would be a virtual lock in the April 9 special election.
Jesse Jackson Jr. isn’t exactly the first member of Congress with an ethical blind spot when it comes to campaign funding. Sen. Robert Menendez, D-N.J., now facing accusations of a far more serious nature, spent thousands of dollars in political donations at a Morton’s Steakhouse in Washington, D.C. The late Rep. John Murtha, D-Pa., drew upon large sums of campaign donations illegally raised by the head of a defense industry lobbying group where Murtha’s brother worked. And former Senator Rick Santorum, R-Pa., for several years during the last decade made extensive withdrawals from a political action committee and a charity with heavily overlapping donor lists for various family expenditures. But none of this should give Jesse Jackson Jr., with or without bipolar disorder, a free pass. As for Jesse Jackson Sr., he’s still reveling in the good life.