WASHINGTON — Former U.S. Rep. Jesse Jackson Jr., once a rising Democratic star whose political fortunes imploded over the use of campaign finances to support lavish personal spending, was sentenced to 30 months in prison on Wednesday.
“I misled the American people,” Jackson, 48, said before U.S. District Judge Amy Berman Jackson imposed the term, which also included an order for restitution and community service.
The ex-Illinois lawmaker’s wife, Sandi, received a 12-month sentence for her role in her husband’s misuse of roughly $750,000 in campaign funds over several years.
“I don’t have to tell you this is a very sad day and a very difficult case,” Judge Jackson said, calling it an example of organized and joint misconduct and a violation of the public trust.
“You knew better,” she said.
As the judge read her sentence, Sandi Jackson wept. Her husband smiled slightly when he received his punishment, which was less than what the government sought.
The pair pleaded guilty in February to various charges — Jackson to one count of conspiracy to commit wire and mail fraud, and false statements; and his wife to filing false tax returns.
After the hearing, Jackson acknowledged his failings and hoped for a renewal.
“I still, believe in the power of forgiveness. I believe in the power of redemption. Today I manned up and tried to accept responsibility for the error of my ways,” he said before climbing into a waiting vehicle.
Vacations, furs and memorabilia
A smooth politician and the son of a civil rights leader and one-time political heavyweight, the younger Jackson admitted to using campaign money to pay for things such as vacations, furs and Michael Jackson memorabilia.
In a statement read in court, Jackson said he wanted to be held accountable for his actions and he knew what he did was wrong.
He also asked the judge to not punish his wife for what he said “was a subset of what I did.”
“I ask that my kids not suffer from my actions,” Jackson said of his two children, 9 and 13. “If probation is not available to my wife, give me her time.”
Jackson’s lawyers reiterated that sentiment and asked the court for an 18-month sentence for Jackson and probation for his wife.
“This is not Madoff,” Reid Weingarten, Jackson’s lawyer, said in court, referring to notorious Wall Street swindler Bernie Madoff. “There was no Ponzi scheme.”
Sandi Jackson sobbed through part of her courtroom statement and said she “put her family unit in peril” for filing false tax returns.
“I stand before you today asking for mercy,” she said. “My heart breaks every day with the pain it’s caused my babies. I ask the court for mercy.”
Prosecutors had sought a four-year sentence for Jackson and 18 months in jail and restitution of $168,550 for his wife.
“This is a sad day that involves a waste of talent,” prosecutor Matthew Graves said. “They were in the top 10 percent of household earnings in the United States. There’s just no need for this kind of conduct.”
Graves said that Jackson did not “deserve credit” for his job as a congressman.
“That’s what he was paid to do,” he said.
Jackson’s lawyers pointed to his record in Washington — one they said was good — in arguing for a lighter sentence.
The judge said the sentencing guidelines were excessive and that apologies expressed appeared genuine. She also cited helpful cooperation.
“The real remorse you’ve shown is palpable in this courtroom,” she said. “There’s no question you’ve suffered. Your remorse is real.”
After sentencing, the judge gave the couple a few minutes to discuss who wanted to serve their sentence first.
Jackson will begin his sentence around November 1 at a prison camp in Montgomery, Alabama, the judge said.
Jackson requested the location.
“I ask for Alabama so I can be as far away from everybody for a while as I can be,” he said. “I want to make it a little inconvenient for everybody to get to me.”
In addition to jail time, Jackson must repay in full the money he misused, while his wife was ordered to make restitution of $22,000.
Jackson and his wife also were ordered to perform community service.
Jackson in Congress until 2012
According to court records, Jackson misused about $750,000 in campaign funds from August 2005 through July 2012. Some of the eye-popping spending included $60,000 at Antiques of Nevada, where Jackson bought two hats belonging to the late singer Michael Jackson costing more than $8,000; a $5,000 football signed by U.S. presidents; and memorabilia involving the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., Malcolm X and martial artist Bruce Lee.
The Jackson’s also use campaign funds to purchase Blu-Ray DVD players from Best Buy, dresses and jewelry from a small boutique and fur capes and parkas from a Beverly Hills, California, furrier.
In total, prosecutors said Jackson made more than 3,000 purchases.
Jackson served in the House of Representatives from 1995 until 2012, when he took a medical leave of absence and never returned.
He was succeeded by Democratic Rep. Robin L. Kelly, who won a special election this year to fill the vacancy in the Illinois 2nd Congressional District.
Jackson’s lawyers later stated he suffers from bipolar disorder.
A rising star, knows Obama
Early in his political career, Jackson was considered a politician on the rise.
In 1997, Newsweek named him one of the 100 people to watch in the next century.
“He’s a hit in Congress,” read the Newsweek article. “Will he be the first black president?”
Although Jackson never lived up to that hype, he was an extremely vocal supporter of then-candidate Barack Obama.
“I’m sure that Dr. King is looking down on us here in Denver noting this is the first political convention in history to take place within sight of a mountaintop,” Jackson said in 2008, referencing the Rev. Martin Luther King’s famous speech, “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop.”
“I know Barack Obama,” Jackson said. “I’ve seen his leadership at work. I’ve seen the difference he has made in the lives of people across Illinois.”
Outside the courtroom, Jackson Sr. told reporters that his son was “unbelievably sick” a year ago, but is now doing better.
“I don’t know how I missed so many signs,” the elder Jackson said.
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