Another chapter has been written in Illinois’ long, sordid history of political corruption.
Former U.S. Rep. Jesse Jackson Jr., a Chicago Democrat, pleaded guilty Wednesday to one count of conspiracy. Federal prosecutors say Jackson conspired to convert $750,000 in campaign funds to his personal use. He faces about four years in prison under a plea deal struck with prosecutors.
Caught up in the scheme was Jackson’s wife, Sandra, who pleaded guilty to filing false joint federal income tax returns from 2006 to 2011. Prosecutors say Mrs. Jackson knowingly understated the couple’s income. She faces one to two years in prison.
The Jacksons both have quit their elective positions – he as an 18-year member of the House, and Mrs. Jackson as a Chicago alderwoman. Thus, the once-promising political career of the son of the Rev. Jesse Jackson has come to an ignominious end.
Details of former Rep. Jackson’s problems border on the bizarre. Prosecutors say he spent money on a $43,350 gold-plated Rolex men’s watch and furs for his wife, but also on memorabilia from celebrities such as Michael Jackson, Bruce Lee, Jimi Hendrix, and the Rev. Martin Luther King.
Jackson’s health problems – he’s being treated for bipolar disorder and other issues – may have led him to make poor choices. But Illinois’ culture of political corruption likely played a role.
Illinois is a breeding ground for politicians who simply don’t believe the rules apply to them. Laws exist that ban the conversion of campaign money to personal use. Jackson knowingly disobeyed them. He joins a rogues gallery of other disgraced Illinois political lawbreakers, including four ex-governors – Rod Blagojevich, George Ryan, Dan Walker and Otto Kerner – who also didn’t think the rules applied to them.
When will it all end? When will crooked politicians no longer plague our state? When will Illinoisans no longer be a national laughingstock? Clearly, stronger laws governing ethics and transparency are needed. Those reforms are up to the Legislature and Congress.
Just as important, the fear of certain prosecution when laws are broken must be spread far and wide among government officials.
Some politicians apparently still believe that, even if investigated and charged, they can bargain their way out of the serious consequences of political corruption.
With their investigation of the Jacksons, federal prosecutors have disproved that belief once again.
So, corruption-minded politicians have a choice. They can change their ways voluntarily, or they can do so involuntarily – behind bars.
If judges throw the book at enough crooked politicians, maybe more will play by the book, and the book can finally be closed on a shameful era.