WASHINGTON – The end of the Jackson family political dynasty arrived Wednesday as a Chicago power couple ready-made for the cameras learned the next few years of their lives will be spent taking turns in prison.
Former U.S. Rep. Jesse Jackson Jr., the civil rights leader's son who once dreamed of becoming mayor or senator, and his wife, former 7th Ward Ald. Sandi Jackson, were tripped up by a taste for luxury that was bankrolled with $750,000 from campaign funds.
On their day of reckoning, the Jacksons brought up a host of personal struggles in an effort to inspire sympathy: his reported mental illness, her series of miscarriages, the plight of their two children if they lost their mother to prison.
In the end, the former congressman got 30 months in federal prison and could end up serving about five months less if he behaves behind bars. The former alderman got a year and stands to serve it all.
Jackson Jr. was given until at least Nov. 1 to begin his prison term.
Federal Judge Amy Berman Jackson said supporters of the former congressman — including his own father — had urged her in letters to put him on probation. If she were to do so, she said, it would appear as if there were two systems of justice, "one for the well-connected and one for everybody else."
"I cannot do it," she intoned. "And I will not do it."
She shot down the notion, brought up by the defense, that elected officials once considered campaign accounts to be retirement funds.
While acknowledging the good the Jacksons had done in office, she lambasted Jackson Jr.'s misdeeds as "knowing, organized, joint misconduct repeated and then covered up."
She said Sandi Jackson was not a spouse who passively received the ill-gotten gains of crimes but one who knowingly spent thousands illegally on her personal whims. The judge noted that Sandi Jackson had served variously as campaign treasurer, campaign manager and consultant for the congressman.
"You were a key player in the Jesse Jackson campaign. Together, you were the campaign," the judge told Sandi Jackson.
"You are standing here to be sentenced because of your own significant and illegal conduct," the judge said.
The Jacksons' sentences were lighter than prosecutors had recommended. They wanted four years for him and 18 months for her. Defense lawyers wanted him to serve 18 months.
Sandi Jackson's lawyers did not get the probation they had sought for her, but they did get an order from the judge allowing her to remain free until her husband finishes serving his time.
In another break, Jackson Jr. won't have to return $750,000 to his campaign fund, but must pay a $750,000 forfeiture as agreed when he pleaded guilty in February.
Additionally, her plea deal called for her to pay $168,550, representing unpaid taxes, but the judge ordered her to pay only $22,000 in restitution. The sum represents money she misused from her own political accounts.
The Jacksons cried as they addressed the judge separately before sentencing.
"I didn't separate my personal life from my political activities, and I couldn't have been more wrong," said Jackson Jr., who paused to dry his eyes and blow his nose.
Jackson Jr. apologized for his crimes and expressed regrets to his mother and father.
"Your honor, throughout this process I've asked the government and the court to hold me and only me accountable for my actions," he said.
He said he hoped that his wife could earn enough money in his absence to keep the family together. "When I get back, I'll take on that burden," he said. "By then I hope my children will be old enough that the pain I caused will be easier to bear."
Sandi Jackson addressed the court after her husband. "I am a little nervous," she told the judge, "so I have a written statement that I would like to read to you."
She continued: "I want to begin by apologizing first to my family, to my friends, my community and my constituents for the actions that brought me here today."
She said she had caused "disappointment in my community" and had "put my family unit in peril."
"My heart breaks every day with the pain this has caused my babies," she continued, weeping. "I ask to be parent, provider and support system that my babies will require in the difficult months ahead."
Their children — a girl, 13, and a boy, 9 — were not in court.
When the former alderman lost her bid for freedom, defense attorney Dan Webb said she wished to serve her term in a correctional institution in Marianna, Fla. The minimum-security facility is a prison camp about 65 miles northwest of Tallahassee.
As for Jackson Jr., the judge said she would recommend he be placed in a federal prison camp in Alabama — he had stated that his first choice was one in Montgomery — or a prison in Butner, N.C. But the Bureau of Prisons will make the final call.
Earlier in the hearing, Jackson Jr.'s lawyer, Reid Weingarten, said his client felt "horror, shame and distress" over his wrongs.
But Weingarten also tried to downplay Jackson Jr.'s actions since he took money from his own campaign fund. It's not as if there are widows and orphans outside the courthouse who are victims and asking for his head, Weingarten said.
"This is not Madoff. This is not a Ponzi scheme," the lawyer said. Bernard Madoff, now imprisoned in the Butner facility, is a financier whose Ponzi scheme led investors to lose their fortunes.
Weingarten said Jackson Jr. "suffers from a very, very serious mental health disease." He identified the former congressman's illness as bipolar disorder and said it was relevant even though "we didn't plead guilty by reason of insanity."
Matt Graves, an assistant U.S. attorney, countered that Jackson Jr.'s crimes represented one of the largest cases of theft from a campaign treasury ever prosecuted.
Graves took a shot at Jackson Jr.'s reported bipolar disorder, saying when mental health issues are litigated in court, usually there is expert testimony, discovery and an examination of the defendant — and that none had occurred in the case.
"When one looks at the facts," Graves said, "it's quite clear that there's no there there."
He decried Jackson Jr.'s "wasted talent" and "what he threw away."
Graves said Sandi Jackson's crimes were serious and had occurred over many years. He noted that defendants with children were given prison terms in courts across the country.
The judge also ordered the Jacksons to serve supervised release after their prison terms: three years for him, one for her. She said he also must perform 500 hours of community service and she must perform 200 hours. But the service may not be political work nor done at a charity run by a relative, the judge said.
Jackson Jr., 48, pleaded guilty to a felony conspiracy count. Sandi Jackson, 49, his co-conspirator, pleaded guilty to a separate count of failing to report about $600,000 in income on tax returns.
The hearing Wednesday took 41/2 hours. When the Jacksons arrived at the courthouse Wednesday morning and emerged from a white Toyota Sequoia SUV, they held hands. With them was Judy Smith, a crisis communications expert and former federal prosecutor whose work inspired the TV show "Scandal."
Jackson Jr., wearing a dark suit, white shirt and blue tie, grimaced. Sandi Jackson, in a beige ensemble, smiled broadly.
The former congressman's father, the Rev. Jesse Jackson, had arrived earlier with his wife and his other children. Speaking with reporters, he reflected on his son's bipolar disorder. "I don't know how I missed so many signs," he said. "We found out he was sick very late. We thought we almost lost him. He was in a different place altogether."
"He was very sick," the father added. "People speculating, 'Is he faking it?' No, he's not."
The Jacksons, both Democrats, pleaded guilty after an illegal spending spree that included a $43,000 men's Rolex watch, furs and cashmere, vacations, two mounted elk heads and memorabilia ranging from a Michael Jackson fedora to an Eddie Van Halen guitar.
The first clear sign that Jackson Jr. was in serious trouble came in June 2012 when he began a mysterious medical leave of absence from Congress. His office initially said he was suffering from exhaustion, but his lawyers later said he was being treated for severe depression and bipolar disorder.
He never returned to work, and reports that he was under investigation soon followed. But he won re-election in November without campaigning. Jackson Jr., who entered Congress in 1995, resigned a few weeks after the election victory.
Sandi Jackson was on the Chicago City Council from 2007 until January, when she resigned.
As the once-promising couple left the courthouse Wednesday, Jackson Jr. tried to have the last word.
"I still believe in the power of forgiveness," he said. "I believe in the power of redemption. Today I manned up and tried to accept responsibility for the errors of my ways. And I still believe in the resurrection."
But a heckler got in a final jab.
Jacques Chevalier, 58, of Washington, who described himself as a landlord, said he had watched the hearings from an overflow room for spectators.
"Please leave D.C.," he shouted at the Jacksons. "We don't need your kind here no more. And this is a black man speaking."
Marina Villeneuve of the Tribune Washington Bureau and Tribune reporters Monique Garcia, Kim Geiger and Jason Meisner in Chicago contributed.
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