Feds charge Jesse Jackson Jr., Sandi Jackson
BY NATASHA KORECKI, MARY MITCHELL, MICHAEL SNEED, FRAN SPIELMAN AND LYNN SWEET Staff Reporters February 15, 2013 12:12PM
Jesse Jr. and Sandi Jackson in February 2007 when she won her race for alderman. | JON SALL~SUN-TIMES
Updated: March 17, 2013 6:42PM
It began with a “suspicious activity report.”
A bank-generated report that flags questionable activity in an account regulated by the FDIC found its way into the hands of an FBI agent in Washington D.C.
The red-lighted bank account: A congressman from Illinois.
And so began the investigation that brought charges Friday against former U.S. Rep. Jesse Jackson Jr. and his wife, Sandi, once one of Chicago’s most powerful political couples.
He’s now accused of allegedly misusing $750,000 in campaign funds. She’s been named a co-conspirator and faces a separate charge.
The former congressman faces up to 57 months in prison but his lawyers can argue for as little time as probation.
Court documents made public Friday alleged long-term, brazen behavior by husband and wife, specifically that the two dipped into the campaign fund to live well beyond their means.
That meant dropping thousands of dollars on furs, Michael Jackson collectibles, a $43,000 gold Rolex watch, Martin Luther King Jr. treasures, $10,000 in children’s furniture and thousands of dollars in Bruce Lee memorabilia, according to charges.
On one day, for instance, in November of 2009, Jesse Jackson Jr., 47, whose district includes one of the most crime-ridden and most economically-depressed in the state, spent $5,000 on four fur coats, including a mink reversible parka for $1,200, a black fox reversible for $1,500 and two capes — one mink and the other black and red cashmere.
News of the charges upstaged a Chicago appearance by President Barack Obama, who spoke about gun violence and the economy just one block from Jackson Jr.’s old 2nd Congressional District.
Authorities say the Jacksons hid their behavior by falsifying financial disclosure reports with the federal elections commission, often mis-identifying the items as legitimate campaign expenditures.
Included in the long list of alleged illegal purchases were two transactions that happened just weeks before Jesse Jackson Jr. sat down for an interview with the FBI in 2009 — on another case. Then, Jackson was questioned about his alleged role in offering Rod Blagojevich campaign money in exchange for Obama’s U.S. Senate seat. Jackson was not charged in that case.
But his allegedly illicit spending continued after that, according to court papers, until about a month before he disappeared from Congress last year, saying he suffered from depression. Sources have told the Sun-Times that federal authorities believed Jackson found out about the investigation before he left June 10, 2012. He did not announce his leave for two weeks then family and aides gave evolving reasons for his departure. Eventually, bipolar depression was cited.
Last October, the Sun-Times first reported that Jesse Jackson Jr. faced a federal investigation because of suspicious activity in his congressional account. Earlier this month, the Sun-Times reported Sandi Jackson, 49, was also the target of an investigation.
At one point, the investigation involved a minor undercover operation involving the purchase of two mounted Elk heads that the congressman had bought from a Montana taxidermist with campaign funds, according to a source close to the case.
Jackson Jr. was charged with four charges — conspiracy, making false statements, and mail and wire fraud. His wife, former Ald. Sandi Jackson, was charged in a separate information with filing false tax returns from 2006 to 2011. Each plans to plead guilty, according court papers and sources.
Both Jacksons are expected to appear in court in Washington D.C. mid-week next week, possibly Wednesday. Also expected to be released next week is a statement of facts, which will lay out more specifics about the government’s case against the Jacksons.
One source close to the case said the two could appear in district court on the same day but would go before judges at different times. Sandi Jackson acted as her husband’s campaign manager and for years was paid out of his fund $5,000 every month in that role.
The charges against the Jacksons, once a political power couple, were stunning even in a city that’s almost immune to public corruption charges. Until late last month, Illinois’ two previous governors were sitting in different federal prisons for separate crimes. Three state lawmakers are facing criminal charges, including one accused of taking a bribe on tape.
In a statement issued through his lawyers, Jackson Jr. said: “Over the course of my life I have come to realize that none of us are immune from our share of shortcomings and human frailties. Still I offer no excuses for my conduct and I fully accept my responsibility for the improper decisions and mistakes I have made. To that end I want to offer my sincerest apologies to my family, my friends and all of my supporters for my errors in judgment and while my journey is not yet complete, it my hope that I am remembered for things that I did right.”
Sandi Jacksons’ attorneys, Dan Webb and Tom Kirsch released a statement saying the former alderman reached an agreement to plead guilty to one count of tax fraud.
“Ms. Jackson has accepted responsibility for her conduct, is deeply sorry for her actions, and looks forward to putting this matter behind her and her family. She is thankful for the support of her family and friends during this very difficult time.”
In an interview with the Sun-Times before the charges were filed, the former congressman’s father, the Rev. Jesse Jackson, said he was huddled with his son and family in Washington, D.C, “being very prayerful.”
Jackson Sr. made no effort to hide how excruciating it has been to watch his son and namesake resign and face a substantial prison sentence.
“This is a painful ordeal, but with love and prayer, we’ll get through it,” said the elder Jackson, who has had a strained relationship with his son over the years.
Jackson Sr. said his son, who has been treated for bipolar disorder, “still has substantial health problems that he is struggling with, and he is on a serious medical regimen.”
Jackson Sr. was asked whether he was either embarrassed or surprised at his son’s lavish spending on items.
He cut off the conversation, telling the Chicago Sun-Times, “I can’t comment on any of that. I could not and should not. I don’t know enough about it. We’re close enough to remain prayerful and supportive. But, I don’t know anything about the legal details.”
On Saturday, Jackson Sr. via a telephone call addressed a crowd at Rainbow/PUSH, thanking everyone for their calls and prayers.
“This is a storm. But it will pass,” he said.
Jackson Jr. could face 46 to 57 months under sentencing guidelines and be ordered to pay hundreds of thousands of dollars in forfeiture and restitution.
The former congressman resigned from office in November amid the pressures of a federal criminal investigation and a diagnosis of bipolar depression.
His wife resigned from her job as 7th Ward alderman last month, citing “very painful family health matters.”
“If Jesse had any fight in him, he could have fought this,” said another source close to Jackson Jr.
“He has tried to everything possible to stand up and be a man and to protect his wife...” the source said.
Jackson Sr. said he had planned to be in Chicago on Friday to discuss gun violence issues with Obama, but canceled those plans because “of what is happening today.”
Throughout his tenure, the younger Jackson remained politically popular in his district, which he represented for 17 years. He easily raised campaign money and almost always spent it all — even though he repeatedly won re-election handily, with no opposition or minor competition at best. According to the Center for Responsive Politics, Jackson’s biggest donor over his tenure as a congressman was Exelon, its company’s employees and PAC combined donated more than $85,000. Organized labor poured more than $1 million into his account over the years.
Some of Jackson’s purchases came from Edwards-Lowell, a Beverly Hills, Calif., fur salon, in business since 1940. A woman picking up the phone there would not comment. Antiquities of Nevada runs Antiquities, a memorabilia seller located in the Forum Shops of the Ceasar’s Palace casino in Las Vegas. A manager said he could not discuss customer purchases and that he was not personally familiar with the congressman.
Contributing: Art Golab