“Staggering” is how Assistant U.S. Attorney Matthew Graves described the alleged crimes committed by former Illinois Rep. Jesse Jackson Jr. and his wife, Sandra Stevens Jackson. Earlier this year, the two pleaded guilty to using nearly $750,000 in campaign funds to pay for luxury items, from gold-plated Rolex watches and Michael Jackson memorabilia to thousands of dollars in furs and other clothing.
Today, the Jacksons received their sentences: Jesse Jackson Jr. will serve two and a half years in prison, with the possibility of a shortened sentenced for good behavior. He was also ordered to perform 500 hours of community service, separate from politics. His wife will then serve one year, beginning 30 days after he is released.
Responding to the sentence, Jackson Jr. took full responsibility, “I didn’t separate my personal life from my political life, and I couldn’t be more wrong,” he said. “I take responsibility for my actions.”
His sentence was lighter than it could have been. The government, in its prosecution, recommended four years, with Graves dismissing the idea that Jackson’s mental health—he was recently diagnosed with bipolar disorder and severe depression—should play a part in sentencing. “There’s no ‘there’ there,” the prosecutor said, stressing the extent to which this was an unprecedented abuse of campaign funds, and one of the worst that has “ever been documented.”
Before his resignation, Jackson had served 17 years in Congress, and was an early ally of Barack Obama when the future president was a state senator. He co-chaired Obama’s 2008 presidential campaign and even defended the then-United States senator from attacks made by his father, Rev. Jesse Jackson Sr.
His star dimmed somewhat in 2009 over his involvement in a pay-to-play scandal involving former governor Rod Blagojevich and Obama’s vacant Senate seat. Things in Jackson’s orbit returned to normalcy afterwards, and he easily won reelection in the 2010 midterm elections, beating his Republican challenger by nearly 67 percentage points. In July 2012, his office acknowledged he had been absent from Congress since June, citing treatment for a “mood disorder.” That August, the Mayo Clinic announced that Jackson was being treated for bipolar disorder. From there, things collapsed, as an ethics investigation moved forward and questions mounted over his absence. A few weeks after winning reelection in November, he resigned from office.
Publicly, Rev. Jesse Jackson has been quiet on the verdict and the sentencing of his son, but according to the Chicago Sun-Times, the elder Jackson acknowledged that they “almost lost him,” and asked the family to “Focus on the windshield, not the rear-view mirror.”
For a lawmaker with national ambitions and the legacy of his famed father, today’s events represent a tremendous fall from grace.