The federal prosecutor whose office sent Jesse Jackson Jr. and his wife, Sandi, to prison said Wednesday their crimes weren't "particularly sophisticated," left a long paper trail and showed a sense of "greed and entitlement."
Ronald Machen Jr., U.S. attorney for the District of Columbia, said he's motivated to pursue public corruption cases because people without a fraction of the same opportunities in life as elected officials face "pretty severe sanctions" when they run afoul of the law.
"(Fighting) corruption is a priority throughout the Justice Department," he said. "It really strikes at the fabric of our democracy. And when people lose trust in our government, they lose trust in our entire system of government."
Machen spoke to the Tribune after a dramatic, 4 1/2-hour sentencing hearing for the Jacksons in federal court.
Prosecutors had sought a four-year sentence for Jackson. He got 2 1/2 years. They had wanted Sandi Jackson sentenced to 18 months. She got 12.
Nonetheless, Machen found the sentences fair, saying he knew defense counsel would argue for much less and often a middle ground is chosen. He wasn't in the courtroom, but got a stream of reports from his team, led by Assistant U.S. Attorneys Matt Graves and Michael Atkinson.
Typically, defendants can serve the last 10 percent of their terms in a halfway house or home detention, Machen said. He's well aware that defendants fear prison.
"Once those doors shut, it's an eerie feeling," he said, "Now imagine being there 2 1/2 years. I certainly wouldn't want to spend two days in prison, let alone 2 1/2 years. It does serve as a deterrent to others."
Machen's role is unique in the nation: As U.S. attorney for the District of Columbia, he must prosecute both local and federal crimes.
He said he's seen cases in which children lose their parents to wrongdoing — drug rings in which both parents get prison time, or domestic violence in which a man kills his wife and is sent away for years, thrusting children into the hands of protective services workers.
Children were an issue in Sandi Jackson's case because she pushed for probation, citing the care of the couple's 9-year-old son and 13-year-old daughter.
"Something that happens all the time in the blue-collar world may be a surprise in the white-collar world," Machen said.
On the subject of Jackson's mental health, Machen said prosecutors were never given detailed evidence to substantiate the former lawmaker's claims. He said it was clear Jackson had "some issues there," but noted that the misconduct lasted for years and much of it predated Jackson's stays at two treatment facilities in 2012.
As Machen has said, prosecutors did not begin investigating Jackson's use of campaign funds because of his involvement in the Senate seat scandal that sent Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich to prison.
And only after looking at the congressman did investigators come upon the misdeeds of Sandi Jackson, then a Chicago alderman, he said.
Machen was tight-lipped about what triggered the probe of Jackson and whether an informant put the FBI and Internal Revenue Service on his trail.
"We generate our cases from a variety of sources," he said, adding that the large sum of money — about $750,000 — coupled with fairly unsophisticated schemes made this investigation easier than others involving shell companies and the furtive movement of money.
Six people identified in the conspiracy case against Jackson — named Person A through Person F in court documents — won't face charges "at this time," Machen said.
He also said that while the Jacksons accepted responsibility for their crimes and saved the government the burden of trials, they weren't "cooperative" in the way that matters most to prosecutors: giving investigators information about wrongdoing they didn't know about, whether it was their own or that of others.
"Jesse, from day one, wanted to accept responsibility and provide information, but it was information about his own conduct — and we had a lot of that information."
"Sandi accepted responsibility right away," he added.
Machen said he did not hear from the Rev. Jesse Jackson while prosecuting the case. "I imagine it's got to be pretty tough for him," Machen said. "I know he loves his son."
As serious as the prosecution was, the Jacksons' spending spree — featuring cashmere capes, a Michael Jackson fedora and an Eddie Van Halen guitar — did have its lighter moments.
So where, Machen was asked, are the two elk heads that Jackson bought? He suggested a reporter ask the U.S. Marshals Service and promptly added: "They're not in my office — I can tell you that."
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