By Katherine Skiba and Marina Villeneuve, Chicago Tribune Newspapers
WASHINGTON – Former Rep. Jesse Jackson Jr. was sentenced today to 30 months behind bars and his wife, Sandi, got a year in prison for separate felonies involving the misspending of about $750,000 in campaign funds.
The Jacksons will be allowed to serve their sentences one at a time, with Jackson Jr. going first, based on the wishes of the family as expressed by Dan Webb, an attorney for Sandi Jackson.
Jackson Jr. will report to prison on or after Nov. 1, the judge said.
The judge emphasized that Sandi Jackson was sentenced to exactly 12 months, not the year-and-a-day sentence that some criminals get. Defendants sentenced to a year or less cannot qualify for time off for good behavior in prison. But those sentenced to a year and a day can qualify, which means they may end up serving only about 10 months. Under this rule, Sandi Jackson must serve the full year.
If Jackson Jr. earns time off for good behavior in prison, he would serve about 25.5 months.
Sandi Jackson may wish to serve her term in a federal correctional institution in Marianna, Fla., Webb said. The facility, for minimum-security female offenders, is a prison camp about 65 miles from Tallahassee.
As for Jackson Jr., the judge said she would recommend he be placed in a federal prison camp in Alabama — he has stated through counsel that he wants to be assigned to a prison camp in Montgomery — or in Butner, N.C.
Such recommendations by judges to the Bureau of Prisons are advisory only, with the bureau having final say.
Federal Judge Amy Berman Jackson, who is no relation to the defendants, addressed Jackson Jr. before announcing his term. She said people including his father had written to her urging that he be placed under supervision without going to prison.
She said that if she were to do so, 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.”
Both Jacksons wept in court as they addressed the judge before sentencing.
Jackson Jr. apologized for his crimes and expressed special 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.
When Jackson Jr. spoke, his voice was firm except for the few times he wept openly and paused to dry his eyes with tissue, blow his nose and collect himself.
“I am the example for the whole Congress,” he said. “I understand that. I didn’t separate my personal life from my political activities, and I couldn’t have been more wrong.”
Talking about his desire to be sent to a federal prison camp in Alabama, he said: “I want to make it a little inconvenient for everybody to get to me.”
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,” Jackson Jr. said. “By then I hope my children will be old enough that the pain I caused will be easier to bear.”
After a break in the hearing, Sandi Jackson, a former Chicago alderman, got her opportunity to address the court. She started by telling the judge: “I am a little nervous, 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, who are ages 13 and 9 were not in court.
Earlier, Jackson Jr.’s lawyer Reid Weingarten said his client felt “horror, shame and distress” over his crimes.
But Weingarten also attempted to downplay the impact of 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 a Ponzi scheme,” he said.
Weingarten asked for an 18-month sentence for Jackson Jr. and noted, “He suffers from a very, very serious mental health disease.”
He identified the ex-congressman’s illness as bipolar disorder, and conceded that 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 that had ever been prosecuted.
Graves also took a shot at Jackson Jr.’s reported condition of bipolar disorder, saying normally when mental health issues are litigated in court, there was expert testimony, discovery and an examination of the defendant — and said none had occurred in this 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 also pointed out that defendants in federal courts across the country with children were given prison terms.
Jackson Jr., 48, pleaded guilty to a felony conspiracy count involving the $750,000. Sandi Jackson, 49, pleaded guilty to a related charge of failing to report about $600,000 in taxable income.
The Jacksons held hands as they arrived this morning at the federal courthouse. They emerged from a white SUV and were accompanied by Judy Smith, a crisis communications expert and former federal prosecutor whose work inspired the TV show “Scandal.”
The ex-congressman’s father, Rev. Jesse Jackson Sr., arrived earlier with his wife and his other children.
Speaking with reporters before the hearing, Rev. Jackson reflected on his son’s diagnosis of 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,” said Rev. Jackson. “People speculating, ‘Is he faking it?’ No, he’s not.”
Rev. Jackson said that for a time his son wouldn’t drink water, worrying it was dirty.
The judge gave Jackson Jr. an early victory this morning when she indicated he would not have to pay $750,000 to his old campaign fund in addition to the $750,000 money judgment forfeiture he agreed to when he pleaded guilty. Prosecutors had sought both payments.
“If the victim is the campaign, the campaign is defunct,” she said.
Weingarten had argued for just such a ruling — that Jackson Jr. owed $750,000, not double that amount. “My client wants to be able to feed his children,” Weingarten said. “There are a limited amount of resources here.”
Weingarten said the $750,000 would be coming out of the Jackson household and that Jackson Jr. “will be breaking his head” to make that happen. He did not elaborate on the source of those funds.
The Jacksons, both Democrats, pleaded guilty in February after a yearslong spending spree with campaign funds. Among the loot: a $43,000 Rolex watch, furs, vacations, two mounted elk heads and memorabilia ranging from a Michael Jackson fedora to an Eddie Van Halen guitar.
Prosecutors urged that he serve four years in prison and her 18 months. Defense lawyers wanted probation for her and a lighter term for him.
Jackson Jr. was in the House of Representatives from 1995 to 2012. Sandi Jackson served on the City Council from 2007 until last January. Both resigned their positions leading up to their guilty pleas.
Jackson Jr. began a mysterious medical leave of absence from Congress in June 2012 and never returned. His office said initially that he was suffering from “exhaustion,” but his lawyers later said he was being treated for severe depression and bipolar disorder.
After Jackson Jr.’s sentence was announced today, Illinois’ senior senator, Dick Durbin had this reaction:
“It’s heartbreaking. But he did something very wrong and he’s going to pay a heavy price for it.”
The once promising elected officials, now felons, left the building about 1:15 p.m. Chicago time. They were swarmed by photographers as they entered a waiting white Toyota SUV with Maryland plates, while a heckler said; “Please leave D.C. we don’t need your kind here no more.”
Tribune reporter Monique Garcia contributed.