Jesse Jackson Jr. Sentenced to 30 Months in Prison, Wife Sandi Jackson Gets 1 Year

"I misled the American people," Jesse Jackson Jr. says.

Former Rep. Jesse Jackson Jr. was sentenced Wednesday to 30 months in prison for spending $750,000 in campaign cash on personal expenses, while his wife was sentenced to a year for tax fraud.

The judge in the case reluctantly agreed to let Jackson Jr. serving his prison sentence before his wife. A surrender date was set for Nov. 1. After prison, Jackson Jr. must serve a 36-month term of supervised release. 

The former Illinois congressman in February pleaded guilty to charges he spent the money, as well to charges of conspiracy to commit wire fraud, mail fraud and false statements. Sandi Jackson pleaded guilty on the same day. 

During Wednesday's sentencing hearing, Jackson Jr. choked up as he apologized to his family, specifically to his father, Rev. Jesse Jackson, and his mother.

"I misled the American people," he said in a statement to the court. "I misled the House of Representatives. I misled the media by filing my reports. I was wrong. And I don't fault anyone."

Before Judge Amy Berman Jackson sentenced him, she told him he violated the trust of the people of Chicago.

"You were not just Jesse Jackson Jr., you were Congressman Jackson," Judge Jackson, who is not related to the former congressman, told him in court. "Your conduct stained not only your reputation, but the way all elected officials are viewed."

And now the area Jackson Jr. represented, and the state in which he was elected, is reacting.

"Justice has to be served," Illinois Gov. Pat Quinn said, "and if you did the crime, you have to do the time."

"It's a heartbreaking situation," Sen. Dick Durbin told NBC Chicago. "It just breaks my heart to think about what this means for the children, but it's clear that he did something that's very, very wrong, and he's paying a heavy price for it." 

Sen. Kwame Raoul said he prays for the Jacksons' children, aged 13 and 9.

"It's a sad day," Raoul said. "He violated the law, and there are consequences for violating the law.  Congressman Jackson, you know, I always thought had great talent, and it's unfortunate he made some the decisions that he made."

At court Wednesday, Jackson took the rap for the tax fraud for which his wife was sentenced. He said she was a victim of a "culture" he allowed to exist in his campaign and said if probation is not available to her, "give me her time."

Jackson said his one request is that his kids "not suffer the consequences of my actions."

In her statement, Sandi Jackson tearfully apologized to her family, friends and former Chicago constituents.

"I've grieved every day, every single day, over the fact that my mistakes have resulted in my end of service as an alderman," she said. "It's caused disappointment in my community, and it's put my family unit in peril."

"I stand here today asking for mercy," she said.

Judge Jackson calculated the sentencing range as 46 to 57 months for Jackson Jr. and 18 to 24 months for Sandi Jackson, with neither defendant eligible for probation.

Defense Attorney Reid Weingarten requested "significantly less" prison time than the recommended four years, citing Jackson's bipolar diagnosis as a very serious mental health disease.

"There's another chapter here," Weingarten said. "He has unlimited potential to do more wonderful things in the world. ... With treatment Jesse can be fine."

As for Sandi Jackson, he said, "It is our fervent hope that Sandi gets probation ... for the children. She's a wonderful mother, and her kids need her."

In his statement, attorney Dan Webb said there are powerful reasons for a sentence of probation instead of jail time for Sandi Jackson.

"The most powerful one," he said, "is the fact that if a jail sentence is imposed, there is going to be enormous harm to two young children who are going to lose their mother."

Webb said the children have gone through an "extraordinarily traumatic experience with the result of both parents being charged."

Prosecutor Matt Graves said he understands the human element in the case but said "this is an incredibly serous offense that warrants a period of incarceration."

As for Jackson's mental health, Graves said there's no agreement from his doctors about what exactly he suffers from. Graves said it's not even clear why the money was taken since the couple's salaries put them in the top 10 percent of household earnings in the United States.

"The defendant does not deserve credit for doing his work as a congressman," Graves said. "That was his job."

Graves urged the judge to look at Sandi Jackson's behavior separate from her husband, noting how she looted her own campaign, misled regulators and failed to report income to the IRS.

"It's not only unrealistic," Graves said, "but also without justification to ask for probation."

Though he said he recognizes the hardship on the couple's children, he said, "There are numerous parents that are sentenced every day in federal courts across this country."

Judge Jackson ruled she would not order restitution in the case, saying the campaign is Jackson's "alter ego" and there is no other real victim. Jackson still must pay forfeiture.

"There is no question that the defendant should not profit," the judge said, "and that his ill gotten gains should be completely disgorged."

The judge deferred ruling on restitution in Sandi Jackson's case. "The bottom line is that restitution in her case is not mandatory, it's discretionary." 

Federal prosecutors said they will revisit the issue of seizing the couple's two homes after Oct 25. Prosecutors announced in June they wanted to include the Jacksons' two homes in forfeiture proceedings as they seek $750,000 in restitution.

Attorney Weingarten objected to the idea of appointing a lawyer to monitor the forfeiture issue, saying Jackson is working hard to satisfy the $750,000 before he has to go away to prison.

"My client wants to be able to feed his children!" Weingarten said.

One of the greatest ironies of the case is that Jackson's behavior was likely discovered in an investigation where he faced no charges: the allegation that he attempted to buy the Barack Obama Senate seat from then-governor Rod Blagojevich.

But even with Jackson's fall from grace, and as extreme as his behavior apparently was, it does not represent the norm on Capitol Hill, according to Stanley Brand, former House Counsel.

"It's by a magnitude much larger than anything we've seen recently," he said Tuesday. "It's an outlier. ... It's on the edge. It's far afield from what I think the conventional behavior of most members is."

Still, prosecutors allege, and Jackson admitted, that the wholesale theft from his campaign fund went undetected for at least seven years.

"The FEC never caught this stuff," said Paul Ryan of the Campaign Legal Center, a Washington watchdog group. He faults a system where the Federal Election Commission, the very agency charged with enforcing election law, has no authority to do spot checks of political funds.

"As long as you're a confident criminal, as long as you submit campaign reports with the Ts crossed and the Is dotted, you're not likely to be caught by the FEC," he said. "Mr. Jackson covered his tracks well enough to get away with this lawbreaking year after year after year."

Ryan argues the FEC should be given the authority to perform random audits of campaign funds, much as convicted felons and even professional athletes are subjected to random drug tests.

"That would deter some of this activity, if a committee knew there was a chance they would get caught," he said.

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