Clarence Page: Jesse Jr.’s real victim: public trust

Aug. 18, 2013 @ 06:34 PM

Compared to other criminally convicted politicians that I have seen, which is a lot, Jesse Jackson Jr. and his wife Sandi got off easy. But their case also stands out as more tragically bizarre and more pitiful.
Breathtakingly bizarre describes the crimes to which the former congressman — the civil rights leader’s son, who once dreamed of becoming mayor or senator and beyond — and his wife, a former member of Chicago’s City Council, pleaded guilty in February: spending $750,000 in campaign funds as their “personal piggy bank,” in the words of U.S. District Judge Amy Berman Jackson (no relation) in the Washington courtroom before sentencing the two on Wednesday.
That’s a lot of spending. The swag ranged from everyday items like car repairs and trips to Costco to such luxuries as fur wraps, a $43,350 gold Rolex watch, $15,000 in kitchen appliances, $10,000 in children’s furniture, a football autographed by presidents, one of Michael Jackson’s hats and two mounted elk heads — all spent from funds donated for Jackson’s political campaigns.
Their sentences were lighter than prosecutors had recommended. They wanted four years for Jackson and 18 months for his wife. He received 30 months and she was sentenced to a year.
The pity is that the enormity of the spending spree and their long paper trail, easing the work of federal investigators, only gives credibility to the former congressman’s strongest mitigating excuse: He was not thinking straight.
After he took a medical leave from Congress last summer while under federal investigation, he later was treated for bipolar disorder.
“I’ve had to raise many questions to myself about did I confuse success with sickness,” he said in court, sobbing into a handkerchief. “Bipolar was never part of my lexicon.”
But Judge Jackson, acknowledging reports from Jackson’s psychiatrists that she had read, expressed frustration that they did not offer conclusive guidance as to what his condition had to do with his crimes.
The evidence, she said to Jackson, who holds degrees in business, theology and law, “points to only one conclusion: and that is that you knew better.”
Occasional “manic episodes” could explain some of the spending, she said, but not the “continued purchases, day in and day out” in the 3,000 times that the Jacksons used campaign money to make personal purchases. Nor did they explain the purchases by Sandi Jackson, whose mental health was not questioned, only her judgment.
Sad. As I sat through the four-hour sentencing hearing, I thought back to the young Jackson’s arrival in Washington after his election to the House in a special election in 1995, at age 30.
I liked him immediately. Replacing another convicted congressman, he was a breath of fresh air. As a lawmaker, “Triple-J,” I wrote, had all of his famous father’s positives without the controversial negatives. That was long before he developed some major negatives of his own.
What went wrong? Was it the often-cited “culture of corruption,” hardly unique to Chicago, that brought him down? A clue seemed to emerge as the former congressman’s lawyer, Reid Weingarten argued vigorously, “(w)ithout trivializing the offense,” that “there is no victim” in this crime.
After all, he pointed out, before the law was changed in the 1980s, elected officials used to consider campaign accounts to be their “retirement funds.”
Judge Berman wasn’t buying that. She correctly, in my view, identified a group of people who are victimized by the misuse of donated campaign funds: They’re called “donors.”
And voters. The Jacksons’ biggest crime was to further undermine the public’s trust in their political leaders, which is battered enough already.
Indeed, Jackson’s popularity in his district and elsewhere only served to make his illegal spending all the more puzzling and tragic. The junior Jackson was handily re-elected, for example, without campaigning except for a TV ad and posters that said simply “Jr.” in big letters.
That popularity naturally leads many in this cynical age of bizarre comebacks (Bill Clinton and Mark Sanford come to mind) to wonder whether “Jr.” still might have a future. I hope so, but not in government.
Even in my beloved Chicago, anyone who would give him even more campaign cash should have their own head examined.

Clarence Page’s column is distributed by Tribune Media Services. Email him as cpage@tribune.com. Representations of fact and opinions are solely those of the author.