The Congressman's Fabulous Fall: He's Not Even the First Congressman from IL to Go to Federal Prison

Dec 1, 2013

Sandi and Jesse Jackson Jr. at the 2008 Democratic Convention in Denver
Credit WUIS/Illinois Issues
His predecessor in the U.S. House, Mel Reynolds, went to jail in the mid-’90s, being convicted of bank fraud and having sex with a 16-year-old girl. But Jesse Jackson Jr. was the first son of a candidate for president from Illinois to serve time in prison.

In late October, Jackson Jr. reported to a North Carolina prison camp, where he was expected to serve until December 2015. It was the end of what had been a spectacular rise and a hard fall. He was still trying to come up with the cash to cover his restitution.

The oldest son and namesake of the Rev. Jesse Jackson pleaded guilty in February to federal charges of looting his campaign fund of $750,000. Later, he would have to put his $2.5 million Washington, D.C., home up for sale. 

From the time Jackson Jr. took Reynolds’ office, bets were wagered on how high his star would rise: Mayor of Chicago? U.S. Senate? “I have no other office in mind besides where I’m at now,” Jackson insisted in 1996. “This is my magnificent obsession.”

Seventeen years after he was first elected, Jackson’s “magnificent obsession” has taken on a new meaning. He — with the help of his wife, Sandi — indulged in mink capes, pricey vacations, mounted elk heads, Bruce Lee and Michael Jackson memorabilia; all illegal purchases with campaign money.

“Jr.,” as he is often referred to, was the first in the Jackson political dynasty to be elected to office. His image nationally was one of a great and powerful orator, someone who could break barriers, make history — maybe outshine his father’s sometimes controversial legacy.

For people in Chicago and closer to the boiling pot of corruption bubbling up from Springfield since the days of former Gov. Rod Blagojevich, Congressman Jesse Jackson Jr. seemed to unravel in slow motion.

It began in 2008, when Blagojevich was arrested and federal prosecutors revealed the FBI had been recording him for the prior eight weeks. The criminal complaint made public that day quoted Blagojevich, who believed he would receive a $1.5 million campaign donation if he appointed “Senate Candidate 5” to the U.S. Senate position left vacant by Barack Obama’s election as president.

In recordings, Blagojevich is overheard talking about how he might be able to cut a deal with Candidate 5 and wanted “something tangible up front.”

It didn’t take long for the public to figure out that Jackson was the unnamed Senate Candidate 5 in federal documents. Jackson immediately shot down any shady connection to the Blagojevich case, making clear that Blagojevich was citing an interaction the former governor had with someone else — not Jackson. Court documents described that person as an “emissary” to Jackson.

Jackson was adamant from the beginning that he never authorized anyone to offer a quid pro quo on his behalf. “I thought, mistakenly, that the process was fair, above-board and on the merits,” Jackson said during a news conference at the time. “I thought, mistakenly, that the governor was evaluating me and other Senate hopefuls based upon our credentials and qualifications.”

Jr. co-wrote books with his father, had a strong knowledge of history, and his speeches were so stirring that he once commanded high speaking fees. Jackson’s trajectory, however, grew static at the same time that another African-American politician, who didn’t have half the pedigree of the Jackson dynasty, rose to stardom. Barack Obama went from state senator to the U.S. Senate, and his popularity was skyrocketing as other state politicians with lofty aspirations — Blagojevich and Jackson Jr. included — grew frustrated.

When Rod Blagojevich was granted the sole power to appoint Obama’s successor to the U.S. Senate, Jackson Jr. saw his big break coming.

He launched a campaign. He paid for polling. He lobbied for newspaper endorsements. He directed supporters to barrage Blagojevich’s office to lobby for Jackson’s appointment, saying he was the most qualified to serve because of his years in Washington.

Jackson met with Blagojevich the day before the governor’s arrest to laud his accomplishments. He also apologized to his former fellow congressman for not endorsing him when he ran for governor. Blagojevich had harbored a grudge against Jackson for years because he said Jackson had promised to endorse the former governor, boosting his ability to get the black vote in Chicago. Jackson, though, changed his tune and endorsed former Illinois Attorney General Roland Burris because he said he felt he had to support an African-American.

All this activity — legal activity — was as far as Jackson went, by his own account. However, a man close to Jackson, the same man whom Jackson trusted with at least one personal secret, told a different story.

In 2010, the Sun-Times reported that wealthy businessman Raghuveer Nayak told the FBI that Jackson had directed him to approach the Blagojevich camp with a $6 million offer for the Senate seat. Nayak said he told Robert Blagojevich, the governor’s brother, that the Indian-American community in Chicago would raise $1 million right away, and then Jackson, once he was in the Senate, would raise an additional $5 million for the governor. Robert Blagojevich, who testified at trial to the same set of facts, rejected the offer.

Rod Blagojevich, though, resurrected the possibility weeks later —when FBI tapes were rolling.

Nayak said Jackson asked him to make the approach while Nayak visited Washington from Chicago. Nayak told the FBI that he, Jackson and a female “social acquaintance” of Jackson dined together and enjoyed cocktails that night. Jackson would later ask Nayak to secretly pay to fly the woman, a Washington hostess and aspiring model, to Chicago and back to the East Coast.

When the Sun-Times reported Nayak’s testimony to the FBI, Jackson issued an apology for the social acquaintance. However, he steadfastly denied the pay-to-play allegations that would continue to haunt Jackson under the looming Blagojevich cloud.

On June 10, 2012, Jackson disappeared from Congress. But he didn’t notify anyone for two weeks. The notification came at 5 p.m. on the same day as the deadline for those filing to oppose him for the upcoming election. The news release reported Jackson was leaving the Hill for medical reasons.

“On Sunday, June 10th, Congressman Jesse L. Jackson Jr. went on a medical leave of absence and is being treated for exhaustion,” the statement read. “He asks that you respect his family’s privacy. His offices remain open to serve residents of the Second District.”

His wife, Sandi, then 7th Ward Chicago alderwoman, later told the Sun-Times that he had collapsed at home. His strange disappearance continued for months. The congressman did not appear publicly; he did not put out personal statements. The public did not hear from Jackson from June until the end of November — with the exception of a robocall released to constituents of his district right before the Nov. 6 general election.

By contrast, Republican U.S. Sen. Mark Kirk — who had suffered a stroke a year earlier, had a highly sensitive surgery to relieve swelling in his brain, had endured a rigid routine to learn how to walk again and had undergone speech therapy — regularly put out videos showing his physical progress. Kirk, too, released statements and videos endorsing other candidates. He spoke via prerecorded video to the Illinois delegation at the Republican National Convention.

Jackson, on the other hand, was completely silent. As the months wore on, the chorus demanding answers grew louder. What was the nature of his illness? Was he going to resign?

Eventually, it became public that Jackson was receiving treatment at the Mayo Clinic in Minnesota. A statement was released describing his illness as bipolar depression. It was before Jackson took that leave that something else was happening completely unknown to the public: The FBI was poking around his finances. Agents didn’t like what they were seeing.

Jackson was clearly living well beyond his means. There was suspicious movement in his campaign account. There were high-volume credit card charges with suspect expenditures.

The Sun-Times previously reported that federal authorities believed Jackson knew of the investigation before his June 10 departure from Congress.

Jackson did not campaign, and two long-shot opponents called for him to show up to campaign or resign. Jackson never responded and never showed up. But he easily sailed to victory, with a core of loyal voters from the 2nd Congressional District who for so long had counted on the Jackson name to help boost their communities.

Fifteen days later, Jackson resigned. It was only then that Jackson admitted to something that had been reported a month earlier — he was under federal investigation.

In his resignation letter, Jackson ran through his accomplishments.

“We have built new train stations, water towers and emergency rooms. We have brought affordable housing, community centers and health care clinics to those that need it most,” he wrote. “In all, nearly a billion dollars of infrastructure and community improvement has been made on the South Side of Chicago, and thousands of new jobs have been created.”

Still, there was something else he admitted for the first time.

“During this journey, I have made my fair share of mistakes. I am aware of the ongoing federal investigation into my activities and am doing my best to address the situation responsibly, cooperate with the investigators and accept responsibility for my mistakes, for they are my mistakes and mine alone,” he said. “None of us is immune from our share of shortcomings or human frailties, and I pray that I will be remembered for what I did right.”


Natasha Korecki is a political reporter for the Chicago Sun-Times and author of Only in Chicago: How the Rod Blagojevich Scandal Engulfed Illinois and Enthralled the Nation.

Maureen McKinney contributed to this report. 


An Exerpt from Natasha Korecki's Updated Version of Only in Chicago:

Natasha Korecki’s updated version of Only in Chicago.
Credit WUIS/Illinois Issues
 Even though Jackson rarely faced opposition in his elections, his campaign fund was regularly drained, according to government charges. In violation of federal election laws, the campaign money went toward bankrolling a high-end lifestyle for both Jacksons. The items they bought were as over-the-top as some of the expenditures described in undercover FBI recordings of Blagojevich. In 2007, Jesse Jackson Jr. bought a $43,000 gold Rolex watch with money from his campaign fund. In 2007 and 2008, he bought nearly $10,000 in Bruce Lee memorabilia.

Then there was the $3,900 Michael Jackson hat, the $4,000 Michael Jackson and Eddie Van Halen guitar, the $5,000 football signed by American presidents, and the mounted elk heads. All were bought with campaign money. Sandi Jackson sold them back to undercover FBI agents and deposited the proceeds into a personal bank account.

They jetted off to Disney World and sent family members on a holistic retreat in Martha’s Vineyard.

They even used the campaign money to buy toothpaste, underwear, and toilet paper.

These purchases were made before and after Blagojevich’s spectacular arrest. The Jacksons embezzled even after the FBI sat down with the congressman for an interview on the true nature of his involvement in the Blagojevich case.

In one day in 2009, Jesse and Sandi Jackson dipped into campaign money to make four purchases at Edwards-Lowell Furrier and Fur Shop in Beverly Hills. According to the federal indictment, the Jacksons dropped $800 on a mink cashmere cape, $1,500 on a black-and-red cashmere cape, $1,200 on a mink reversible parka, and $1,500 on a “black fox reversible.” They had it all shipped to their Washington, D.C., home.

They spent more than $15,000 of campaign money at Abt Electronics on a washer and dryer, a range, and a refrigerator for their home in Chicago and spent more than $30,000 in campaign money to renovate their Washington, D.C., home.

According to the indictment, the Jacksons used a credit card to cover up these purchases. They lied on federal election reports about the nature of the expenditures. Working through a staffer, they also mislabeled purchases; in one case, Jackson Jr. labeled an expense as a room rental for a campaign event, when in fact he had purchased porcelain collectibles.

The indictment went on to say that Jackson outright laundered money using a staff member, and that in 2011, he leaned on an unnamed person to pay $25,000 on one of his and his wife’s credit cards. The conduct was flagrant and far-reaching. The FBI-led investigation had shown that over seven years, the Jacksons engaged in more than 3,100 transactions for their personal gain. It was all too much for Jackson to explain to a jury. Had Jackson gone to trial, much more of his dirty laundry would have been aired. He might have had to answer even more incredibly uncomfortable questions. “The nature of this spending makes clear this was not a momentary lapse of judgment,” said U.S. Attorney Ronald C. Machen Jr. “This was not a short streak of impulsive behavior.” In February 2013, Jesse Jackson Jr. was in court to enter a guilty plea. In the courtroom, Jackson began blinking back tears before the judge even reached the bench. Sandi Jackson sat in the front row, her husband occasionally turning to her from the front of the room.

Illinois Issues, December 2013