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Editorial: We’re all losers in the scandal that brought down the Jacksons

Updated: September 17, 2013 7:46AM

Jesse Jackson Jr. and Sandi Jackson didn’t just let themselves and their loved ones down. They let the rest of us down, too.

As Judge Amy Berman Jackson (no relation) on Wednesday gave Jesse 2½ years in prison and Sandi a year for looting $750,000 in campaign funds, she said the “evidence points to only one conclusion, and that is that you knew better.”

Like other successful politicians, the Jacksons were awash in campaign dollars. By spending money on themselves, they encouraged cynics to think government is for sale. They turned their backs on the voters in Jesse’s 2nd Congressional District — which already had a sorry record of disgraced congressmen — and Sandi’s 7th Ward. The depth of the Jacksons’ greed is especially galling. The judge made a point of pinning that on both Jacksons. Sandi’s one-year term makes it clear she was as guilty as Jesse in cashing in on their power and political status.

This was not a victimless crime, and its repercussions will be felt long after the Jacksons have finished serving their time.

At Wednesday’s sentencing hearing, Jesse Jackson’s lawyers sought to downplay the seriousness of the infraction, saying, “This is not Madoff . . . The courthouse is not ringed with victims demanding his head.” They also cited the former political star’s struggles with bipolar disorder.

But, as the judge suggested, there was no proof his mood swings had any bearing on the “3,100 illegal transactions that occurred during the life of the conspiracy,” including Jesse’s brazen purchases of a $43,350 gold-plated Rolex watch, TVs and mounted elk heads. There was no justification for Sandi, who must also pay $22,000 in restitution, using her campaign credit card to pay for more than $171,000 in personal expenses, including on salons and spa treatments, furs, a Disney vacation and a sub-zero refrigerator — adding up to what prosecutors called one of the worst abuses of campaigns funds ever documented.

How did the Jacksons think that would look to their constituents, many of whom are struggling financially every day?

As U.S. Attorney Ronald C. Machen Jr. put it, “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.”

To his credit, Jesse, 48, pleaded guilty, and with tears fogging his glasses in court Wednesday he said, “I was wrong, and I don’t fault anyone.” And Sandi, 49, said her “heart breaks every day with the pain” she caused her children, ages 9 and 13.

But Jesse, the heir to the Jackson name and dynasty, and Sandi didn’t need to do this. Their income — nearly $350,000 in 2011 — put them in the top 10 percent.

Their sentencing is the final chapter in the fall of the Jacksons, but unanswered questions remain about whether Jesse Jackson Jr. attempted to buy the Senate seat vacated by Barack Obama when he was elected president. This week, Robert Blagojevich, brother of disgraced former Gov. Rod Blagojevich, called on Jesse to “come clean” on his role in the scandal that sent Rod Blagojevich to prison. Authorities have alleged that a friend of the Jackson family offered campaign funds in exchange for appointing Jesse to the vacant seat. Recordings by federal investigators showed Blagojevich certainly thought there was a deal, but Jesse has denied any role.

Good might come of this if it leads to reforms in our scandal-plagued campaign finance system. And the Jacksons themselves still have an opportunity to write a new ending to this saga.

On Wednesday, lawyer Reid Weingarten told the judge that Jesse Jackson Jr. wants to write the next chapter in life.

We hope there is a next act, both for Jesse and Sandi. And we trust it will be a better one.

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