Former U.S. Representative Jesse Jackson Jr. was sentenced today to 30 months in prison for stealing $750,000 from his campaign to pay for flat-screen TVs, travel, dinners out and a slew of other personal expenses.
The sentence was more than the 18 months requested by Jackson’s lawyer, but less than the government’s recommendation of four years in prison.
U.S. District Judge Amy Berman Jackson said the sentencing guidelines of 46 to 57 months would be “excessive,” pointing to Jackson’s cooperation with the government, history of service and letters from supporters saying he could do more good in his community.
“This was a knowing, organized, joint misconduct that was repeated and then covered up over a period of years,” the judge said. However, she spoke about the need to balance Jackson’s conduct with his character. She cited letters from his constituents detailing contributions to his community and noted the government’s acknowledgment that Jackson displayed a “special” level of cooperation.
In addition to the jail time, the former Illinois congressman will have to pay back the $750,000 he stole from the campaign. After he completes his prison sentence, he must serve three years of supervised release and complete 500 hours of community service.
Jackson’s lawyer, Steptoe & Johnson’s Reid Weingarten (see left), urged the judge to consider a sentence below the guidelines range of 46 to 57 months, saying the “goddess of justice would not weep” at a sentence of 18 months in prison. Weingarten pointed to Jackson’s history of public service, his need for mental health treatment and his desire to be with his children as reasons for leniency.
Jackson was accompanied at today’s hearing by his father, the Reverend Jesse Jackson Sr., and other members of his family.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Matthew Graves argued Jackson should spend four years in prison. “These were extreme abuses” that struck at the integrity of the campaign finance system, he said. Graves noted that there was no explanation for Jackson’s theft, other than that he wanted the items he bought. He agreed Jackson deserved credit for coming forward to the government early on and accepting responsibility, but said the government took that into consideration in deciding what charge to bring as part of the plea deal.
Graves said Jackson shouldn’t get credit for his accomplishments as a congressman. “That was his job,” he said. “It was a job he was paid well to do.” As for Jackson’s mental health problems, Graves argued the defense failed to present evidence that they justified a departure from the sentencing guidelines.
A tearful Jackson told the judge prior to sentencing that he was ready to accept responsibility. “Throughout this process I’ve asked the government and the court to hold me and only me accountable for my actions,” he said. “I was the office holder, it was my campaign.” Jackson said he failed to separate his personal life from his political life, and “I couldn’t have been more wrong.”
Besides today’s testimony, the judge said she received close to 200 letters from Jackson’s supporters and detractors. The letter writers ranged from Jackson’s constituents and personal friends to his former colleagues in Congress.
The judge denied the government’s request to order Jackson to pay $750,000 in restitution in addition to requiring him to forfeit the $750,000 taken from his campaign. The judge said she didn’t find the now-defunct campaign Jackson stole from was a victim under the law governing restitution. “I cannot simply grant myself powers that are not in the statute,” she said.
Jackson was released pending a decision regarding when he would begin his prison sentence. She granted Jackson’s request to recommend he be sent to a minimum-security prison in Montgomery, Ala.
Jackson’s wife, Sandra “Sandi” Jackson, also pleaded guilty to being part of the fraud conspiracy. She appeared at the same hearing as her husband this morning and was sentenced to 12 months in prison for filing false tax returns as part of the fraud. Her lawyer, Winston & Strawn litigation partner Dan Webb (see right) argued for a sentence of probation, saying her children needed her at home. The judge said many loving parents were sent to jail and that if she didn't order jail time, it would send a message that there were different systems of justice.
Jackson asked the judge, who is no relation to the former congressman, to sentence his wife to probation, saying that if she did have to receive jail time, to give it to him instead. He asked that “my son and my daughter not suffer the consequences of my actions.”
The judge agreed to stagger the Jacksons' sentences so only one of them would be in prison at a time. She deferred to the family's request that the former congressman serve his time first.
Today’s sentencing brought an end to a legal saga that began in February when Jackson was charged with fraud. The case highlighted just how close-knit the Washington legal community is-or at least, can seem.
The case was initially randomly assigned to U.S. District Judge Robert Wilkins. At the start of the proceedings, Wilkins identified several possible conflicts that might warrant recusal. He said in a letter to the parties that while he was a law student at Harvard Law School in 1988, he co-chaired an on-campus effort to support the Rev. Jesse Jackson Sr.’s presidential campaign and introduced the elder Jackson at an event. In 1999, when Wilkins was a private attorney, he said, he appeared on a CNN show with Jackson Sr. to talk about a civil rights case in which Wilkins was the plaintiff.
Jackson’s lawyers and the government waived disqualification and said they were fine with Wilkins handling the case.
In April, however, the case was reassigned from Wilkins to Judge Jackson. The court didn’t offer an explanation and Wilkins declined to comment, but the change took place shortly after Harvard Law School Professor Charles Ogletree Jr. entered his appearance in the case. Wilkins was Ogletree’s student at Harvard and Ogletree has said publicly that the two know each other well. Ogletree didn’t participate in today’s hearing.
The ties between the bench and counsel didn’t end there, though. During a hearing in late April, Judge Jackson identified connections she had to lawyers in Jackson’s case, although she didn’t think they merited recusal. The judge, a former white-collar criminal defense lawyer at Trout Cacheris, said she knew Weingarten and Heberlig through the local white-collar defense bar.
Also on the defense side, the judge said Ogletree was one of her references when she was nominated to the court. “I've known Mr. Ogletree longer than either of us want to admit,” she said at the time. Finally, the judge said that as a private lawyer, she’d gone up against a lead prosecutor in Jackson’s case, assistant U.S. attorney Michael Atkinson. The judge didn’t identify the case, but she represented former Louisiana Representative William Jefferson in a corruption case prosecuted by a team that included Atkinson.
National Law Journal photos by Diego M. Radzinschi and Zoe Tillman. Above, Jesse Jackson Jr. leaves the federal courthouse after sentencing.