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Jesse Jackson Jr. resigns from Congress, acknowledges federal investigation for first time

Updated: December 24, 2012 7:06AM



Ambitious, bright and a powerful orator, Jesse Jackson Jr. once saw himself following in the footsteps of his father and running for president.

Instead, in a crashing end to a once promising career, Jackson followed in the footsteps of the congressman he had replaced. He resigned from Congress in disgrace on Wednesday, just weeks after he won re-election.

In a two-page letter dated Nov. 21 and tendered to U.S. Speaker of the House John Boehner, Jackson acknowledged he is cooperating with a federal investigation into his “activities” and cited a continued battle with his mental health.

“He couldn’t stop crying, so he couldn’t give a press conference,” according to a source close to Jackson. “First, he is not well. He is up and down. When he’s up, he can talk but he breaks down that’s why he couldn’t conduct the press conference.”

The letter put an end to months of speculation about the congressman’s future and will offer a respite to a congressional district — which includes some of the most economically depressed parts of the state — that has gone without representation for five months.

The South Shore Democrat has been absent from his congressional post since June 10, something his family has attributed to a battle with bipolar depression. He checked into the Mayo Clinic twice and checked out of the facility most recently one week ago.

A federal investigation into alleged improprieties in Jackson’s finances was active before Jackson took that leave.

“During this journey I have made my share of mistakes. I am aware of the ongoing federal investigation into my activities and I am doing my best to address the situation responsibly, cooperate with the investigators, and accept responsibility for my mistakes, for they are my mistakes and mine alone,” Jackson wrote in his letter.

“None of us is immune from our share of shortcomings or human frailties and I pray that I will be remembered for what I did right. It has been a profound honor to serve the constituents of Illinois’s Second Congressional District.”

The Chicago Sun-Times first reported in October that Jackson was under federal scrutiny in a financial probe unrelated to the Rod Blagojevich scandal. Federal authorities as recently as last week were still examining Jackson’s finances and the review has included activity involving Jackson’s wife, Ald. Sandi Jackson (7th).

The Sun-Times also first reported that Jackson was attempting to negotiate a plea deal. His attorneys on Wednesday for the first time publicly confirmed that he was cooperating and attempting to find a resolution with authorities. They warned that could take months.

Jackson’s fall from grace is one that has become all too familiar in a state riddled with similar stories of troubled politicians — from former governors Blagojevich and George Ryan, who are simultaneously serving prison terms, to a state representative who was re-elected after he was indicted on a bribe allegation.

“The crash of Jesse Jackson Jr. Is a tragic end to a career that once seemed to have no limit. Very sad for him, his family & constituents,” former White House adviser David Axelrod said in a Tweet.

Jackson first took his post in a special election in 1995 — for a seat left vacant by former congressman Mel Reynolds, who resigned after he was convicted in a sex scandal.

Jackson is the son of the famed civil rights leader, the Rev. Jesse Jackson, who stood next to the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. on the historic day King was shot to death.

The Rev. Jesse Jackson spoke to the media briefly on Wednesday, saying his son was too upset to make a public address. The elder Jackson said the family was thankful for the show of concern for his son’s health.

“That is the most encouraging part of all of this, throughout all of the pain, people have taken his need to recover seriously . . . we’re grateful for that,” the Rev. Jackson said.

Privately, the younger Jackson has long been known to be emotionally fragile. After Blagojevich’s 2008 arrest, the congressman was identified as a Senate candidate in the then-governor’s charging papers. Jackson’s longtime friend and donor, Raghu Nayak, identified as his alleged emissary, was accused of offering what Blagojevich believed to be a $1.5 million offer to appoint Jackson to Barack Obama’s vacated U.S. Senate seat.

In a phone call with the criminal chief in the Chicago U.S. Attorney’s office the day of Blagojevich’s arrest, Jackson said the media was outside his house asking if he was going to be arrested next.

“I’m somewhere between a nervous breakdown and insanity,” Jackson said in the phone call.

Jackson was never charged in the Blagojevich scandal but the Sun-Times has previously reported that Nayak, in secret talks with authorities, said it was Jackson who directed an offer to Blagojevich. Nayak described it as a $6 million offer and said Jackson also said he could take advantage of his friendship with Obama to arrange a Blagojevich pardon if it ever were to be necessary.

Jackson has always forcefully denied allegations tied to Blagojevich. He did, however, admit to having a relationship with a “social acquaintance,” whom Nayak paid to fly from Washington D.C. and Chicago at Jackson’s behest.

On Wednesday, at a downtown press conference, Rep. Bobby Rush said he talked briefly by phone with Jackson early that morning. He said Jackson sounded “sorrowful.”

“He just said, ‘Bobby, I’m not going to be with you anymore,’ ” Rush said. “I can’t carry this through.”

Lawyers for Jackson said negotiations for a “fair resolution” could take several months.

“Mr. Jackson is cooperating with the investigation. We hope to negotiate a fair resolution of the matter but the process could take several months. During that time, we will have no further comment and urge you to give Mr. Jackson the privacy he needs to heal and handle these issues responsibly,” according to a statement by Reid Weingarten and Brian Heberlig, who are in Washington, and Dan K. Webb, who is in Chicago.

“While I’m sure this was a difficult decision for Congressman Jackson, now is the time to look forward,” Mayor Rahm Emanuel said in a statement. “The residents of the 2nd Congressional District will now have an opportunity to choose their next leader to fight for all of us in Washington, D.C. My thoughts and prayers are with the Jackson family and I wish Jesse a healthy recovery.”

The resignation opened the door for a special election and a flurry of names of possible successors surfaced even before Jackson’s resignation. They ranged from Kurt Summers, chief of staff to Cook County Board Commissioner Toni Preckwinkle, to Sam Adam Jr., the former Blagojevich attorney.

Adam, however, ultimately is unlikely to seek the bid.

Cook County Clerk David Orr said he and his counterparts in Chicago, and Will and Kankakee counties — the four areas included in the 2nd Congressional District — want the special election held April 9, along with a primary on Feb. 26. The suburban areas all have elections already scheduled for those dates. By law, Gov. Pat Quinn has five days to schedule the election, which would have to be held within 115 days of Jackson’s resignation Wednesday. That would place the election no later than March 16.

Asked to react to the “mistakes” Jackson cited in his letter, Quinn told reporters Wednesday afternoon he respected the congressman for stepping forward and taking responsibility for missteps but sidestepped entirely any direct mention of a federal investigation.

“There’s no question that the Jackson family and Congressman Jackson, in particular, made significant contributions to the state of Illinois,” Quinn said. “And, if there were mistakes made by the congressman, he’s taken responsibility for those, and that’s what accountability is all about. All of us have to be accountable, and we have to be folks who serve the community,” the governor said.

Rep. Mike Quigley (D-Ill.) said “for elected officials, I think the only thing you take from this is the need for greater transparency and accountability.” With low public approval ratings of Congress, “It is very hard to lead without the publics’ trust.”

Contributing: Mary Mitchell, Lynn Sweet, Lisa Donovan, Dave McKinney



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