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Jesse Jackson Jr. and wife Sandi: From power couple to prison inmates

Updated: September 17, 2013 7:41AM

WASHINGTON — They were congressman and alderman, candidate and campaign chief.

They are also husband and wife, father and mother.

And on Wednesday, in an extraordinary sentencing hearing, Jesse Jackson Jr. and Sandi Jackson added another layer of complexity to their relationship: Both will be prison inmates.

Former U.S. Rep. Jesse Jackson Jr. was sentenced to 2 1/2 years behind bars for stealing $750,0000 from his campaign fund while former Ald. Sandi Jackson (7th) is to serve one year for filing false tax returns.

Sandi Jackson, 49, appeared stunned by the imposition of a prison term, her face frozen and drained of color after the judge ordered a 12-month sentence that offers no ability to earn time off for good behavior.

The former alderman later retreated to her defense chair and dropped her head. Sandi Jackson’s lawyers had vigorously argued for probation.

The former congressman received half of the nearly five years he could have faced. Jackson Jr., 48, who had been blowing his nose and sobbing during his remarks to the judge, appeared to break into a half-grin as the news of the sentence settled in.

U.S. District Judge Amy Berman Jackson took the unusual step of allowing the Jacksons -- parents of a 13 year old and 9 year old — to stagger their sentences. And in one of the more surreal moments of the proceedings, the judge recessed to allow husband and wife to confer over who would go to prison first. It was determined to be Jesse Jackson, who will report around Nov. 1.

“There may be blurred lines for congressmen to follow when their lives are political. This case did not come near those areas,” said Judge Jackson (no relation). She said to impose no prison time would mean there was one set of rules for the “well-connected and one for everybody else. I cannot do it and I will not do it.”

The judge rejected Jackson Jr.’s mental health issues as a defense saying that his string of accomplishments in life — propped up by a political family dynasty — “points to only one conclusion, and that is that you knew better.”

She said Jackson could not claim his bipolar disorder as a mitigating factor because his series of purchases “were not all sudden and extraordinary purchases.”

“This was a knowing, organized misconduct that was repeated and then covered up over the years,” the judge said.

Still, she lauded Jackson Jr. for his accomplishments as congressman, saying he went beyond just doing his job. That included bringing clean drinking water to Ford Heights. She also praised a record he once held for not missing a vote in Congress in 13 years.

The judge’s remarks came after emotional pleas from both Jacksons.

The former congressman, addressing the court, stopped several times before the judge, to blow his nose in a tissue. At one point, he tried talking but whispered “I can’t see” because his crying was fogging up his glasses.

“I didn’t separate my personal life from my political life, and I couldn’t be more wrong,” he said. “I take responsibility for my actions.” He added: “I am the example for the whole Congress.”

He asked to be sent to a prison camp in Montgomery, Ala.

“I want to make it a little inconvenient for everybody to get to me,” he muttered through tears.

If the judge rejected the mental health defense, she appeared equally unimpressed by Sandi Jackson’s contention that she should escape prison because she needed to be there for her children.

“I stand before you today asking for mercy,” Sandi Jackson said. “I ask to continue to provide for my children.”

Sandi Jackson’s attorney, Dan Webb, implored the judge to allow his client to work off her sentence as community service. “To take the mother away … would be an unbearable burden on these two children,” Webb said.

The judge later addressed the issue.

“The message has not been subtle. The pleadings have laid this on very, very thick,” the judge replied. “It is not the court that put your children in this position. It is not the government that put your children in this position.”

She cited spending of campaign funds that included $5,000 in furs and parkas “in one day,” spa trips, Disney trips and expenses in Las Vegas, then ordered Sandi Jackson to pay $22,000 in restitution separate from what her husband owed.

The judge made clear that Sandi Jackson was not sentenced to a year and a day, which could have qualified her for good time and would have meant she would have effectively served 10 months in prison. Instead, under the rules of federal sentencing, she will serve a longer sentence with the judge sentencing her to one year.

A prison term for the once-powerful Jesse Jackson Jr. marks a spectacular fall from grace for the son of the famed civil rights leader, the Rev. Jesse Jackson. Before court, the elder Jackson and his family took part in a prayer circle led by Bishop Gordon Simon of Tri-State Baptist Church in Chicago.

The younger Jackson easily sailed to re-election term after term in his South Side and south suburban 2nd Congressional District.

All told, he spent 17 years serving the district until he resigned in disgrace last November.

On Wednesday, the Rev. Jesse Jackson, upon seeing his son in the Washington, D.C., federal courthouse cafeteria, stood up and warmly embraced him. Jackson’s brothers, Yusef and Jonathan, as well as his sister, Santita, also greeted their brother as the family huddled in the cafeteria just before facing a federal judge.

It was clear the day was expected to bring anguish for the incredibly public family: The Jacksons had hired a public relations consultant who was on hand, as was Judy Smith, the crisis counselor who inspired the ABC hit series “Scandal.”

The senior Jackson later issued a statement saying he was proud that his son stood in court and accepted responsibility for his actions.

“He was remorseful. He is recovering. He has highs and lows. I have a greater appreciation for it now,” the reverend said. “He turned to us as a family and said that ‘I let you down.’ ... I think we let him down, I may have missed the signs and I was apologetic to him.”

Even in a state like Illinois, where governors, aldermen and congressmen have routinely gone to prison, the Wednesday hearing was remarkably rare as it involved a powerful couple who together saw their political demise in the same courtroom.

“There’s no exact parallel,” said Dick Simpson, a longtime political observer and former Chicago alderman. The closest parallel is Illinois having four of the last seven governors in prison, he said.

Simpson added that from 1976 to 2011 there were 18,069 corruption cases in Illinois. “There have been a couple of husbands of wives, but I don’t remember any that parallel the Jacksons,” he said. “Jesse Jr. was sort of African American royalty. He was seen as a rising star, who could have been governor, senator maybe mayor.”

The rejection of some of their arguments notwithstanding, the judge did sentence both Jacksons to terms that were less than or at the low end of a federal guideline range. She credited each with admitting to the crimes and pleading guilty, sparing the government the expense of trial.

Assistant U.S. Attorney Matt Graves took exception to Sandi Jackson’s argument for probation. Graves said considered independently of her husband, Sandi Jackson’s case was one of the worst involving personal use of campaign funds that had “ever been documented.”

Among the items Sandi Jackson purchased with the funds were “thousands of dollars at salons and spa treatments,” a Disney vacation and a subzero freezer for their Chicago home, he said. She spent tens upon tens of thousands of dollars using the credit card of her husband’s congressional funds. She filed falsified reports to the Federal Election Commission and knowingly signed off on IRS tax forms she knew were inaccurate.

Graves noted the Jacksons’ combined income in 2011 was nearly $350,000, putting the couple among the top 10 percent household incomes in the country and giving them no financial need to steal.

Graves also questioned Jackson Jr.’s medical condition, saying: “It’s quite clear there’s no ‘there’ there,” arguing that Jackson Jr. shouldn’t get a lighter sentence because of any medical issues.

“Jesse Jackson Jr.’s journey from the halls of Congress to federal prison is a tragedy of his own making,” said U.S. Attorney Ronald Machen in a statement. “Jackson’s political potential was unlimited, but he instead chose to treat his campaign account as a personal slush fund, stealing from the people who believed in him so he could live extravagantly. He squandered his great capacity for public service through outright theft. The prison sentence imposed today should serve as a wake-up call to other public officials who believe there are no consequences for betraying the public trust.”

Jackson’s attorney Reid Weingarten had argued that Jackson’s campaign spending included gray areas, like that of many congressman with “safe” seats.

“This is not [Bernie] Madoff. This is not a Ponzi scheme. The courthouse is not ringed with victims demanding his head,” Weingarten said. “The goddess of justice would not weep at an 18-month sentence.”

Later, Weingarten characterized it this way: “It’s a tragedy. The fall from grace was complete.”

For his part, Jackson Jr. shied away from cameras as he left court. But he predicted he had yet to write another chapter.

“I still believe in the power of redemption,” Jesse Jackson Jr. said. “Today I manned up and tried to accept responsibility for the errors of my ways, and I still believe in the resurrection.”

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