WASHINGTON — Former Illinois congressman Jesse Jackson Jr. was sentenced to 30 months in prison Wednesday for using $750,000 in campaign money for living expenses, clothes and luxury items.
Jackson and his wife, Sandi Jackson, used campaign funds as a "personal piggy bank," U.S. District Judge Amy Berman Jackson told him. "There may be gray areas in campaign finance This case did not come near to those areas."
"As a public official, you are supposed to live up to a higher standard of ethics and integrity," said Jackson, no relation to the former congressman.
The sentence was handed down during a hearing where Jackson tearfully admitted wrongdoing.
"I take responsibility for my actions and for everything I have done," Jackson said, sobbing openly in court as his family looked on.
Jackson's crime and likely punishment mark a dramatic fall for a man once viewed as a fast-rising political star in his home state. Jackson, 48, is the son of civil rights leader and former presidential candidate, Rev. Jesse Jackson Sr. The senior Jackson and other members of the family were in the courtroom.
The sentence was less than the four-year sentence sought by prosecutors Jackson who pleaded guilty in February to misusing campaign funds.
Court filings show Jackson treated donors' money as his own, spending lavishly on luxury goods and services, including a $43,350 gold-plated men's Rolex watch, $5,687 for a "holistic retreat" in Martha's Vineyard and more than $5,000 on capes and fur parkas. He also used campaign funds for more commonplace expenses, such as dry cleaning and toothpaste purchased from Costco.
His lawyer Reid Weingarten pleaded for leniency, saying Jackson is a "good person" whose judgment was impaired by his bipolar disorder. The crimes are serious, Weingarten said, but "there are not widows and orphans surrounding the courthouse wanting his head."
He asked for much lighter punishment. "The goddess of justice would not weep at an 18-month sentence," Weingarten said.
Weingarten noted that lawmakers in the 1980s were permitted to use campaign money for personal expenses. "If you took a microscope and looked at all these campaign (reports), you would find a lot of gray," he said.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Matthew Graves said the case "strikes at the integrity of the campaign-finance system" and warranted punishment.
His wife, former Chicago alderman Sandi Jackson, has pleaded guilty to falsifying the couple's tax returns over a six-year period. Prosecutors sought an 18-month prison term for Sandi Jackson, but not to be served as the same time as her husband. The couple has two children, ages 13 and 9.
"My heart breaks every day with the pain it has caused my babies," Sandi Jackson said during a tearful appearance Wednesday. .
Jesse Jackson Jr. also pleaded with the judge Wednesday to spare his wife prison time, saying if probation is not available for his wife, "give me her time."
Graves, the prosecutor, said Sandi Jackson was not an unwitting accomplice to her husband's crimes. "The facts show that she stole and that she stole a lot of money," he said.
Sandi Jackson used a campaign credit card to pay for $171,000 in personal goods, Graves said. He ticked off a string of expenses paid for with campaign funds, including a Sub-Zero refrigerator, school fees and a trip to Walt Disney World.
Jackson Jr. was first elected to Congress in a 1995 special election to replace Mel Reynolds, a Democrat who resigned after he was convicted of having sex with a teenage campaign worker.
Jackson won re-election by a wide margin last November, despite the federal investigation and his absence from both his congressional job and the campaign trail. Jackson had been on extended medical leave. He resigned from Congress several weeks after Election Day.
In a court document, U.S. Attorney Ronald Machen argued instead that Jackson was driven by "greed and entitlement" to steal. To bolster their call for prison time, prosecutors filed a letter Tuesday from Federal Bureau of Prisons officials, saying the agency had sufficient staff and facilities to "provide appropriate care" for Jackson's illness.
Jackson's lawyer this week asked Jackson to be assigned to a minimum-security federal prison camp on Maxwell Air Force Base in Montgomery, Ala., or Butner-Low, a low-security facility near Raleigh, N.C. (Ponzi scheme mastermind Bernard Madoff currently is imprisoned at a medium-security facility that is part of the Butner complex.)
The judge can recommend a prison placement, but the Bureau of Prisons makes the final decision.
Jackson, stopping to wipe his tears and blow his nose, asked the judge to be sent to the federal prison camp in Alabama to "make it inconvenient for everyone to get to me."
Even after the sentencing is over, the case will not be over. Jackson still will have to forfeit $750,000. Weingarten, said Jackson is "breaking his head" to make that happen. "My client wants to be able to feed his children," he said.
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