CHICAGO – The genesis of Jesse Jackson Jr.'s decline dates to when he chose to forgo divinity studies and enter the world of politics instead, or so says the ex-congressman's sister. Other supporters suggest it was when he opted for weight-loss surgery. Still others single out his diagnosed bipolar disorder.
The sweep of Jackson's life, from golden boy who could be president to broken politician, will be laid out for a federal judge in Washington, D.C., Wednesday as she sentences him and his wife Sandra for misusing $750,000 in campaign money on a gold-plated Rolex watch, mink capes, mounted elk heads and other personal items.
Citing how the son of civil rights leader the Rev. Jesse Jackson ramped up his illegal spending even as he fell under suspicion of involvement in the corruption of ex-Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich, prosecutors are recommending a four-year prison term. Jackson earlier pleaded guilty to conspiring to defraud his campaign.
The brazenness of the Chicago Democrat's criminal spending binge shocked even Illinois – a state with an ignominious history of corrupt pols. And so his family and friends, who sent more than 100 letters to the judge, face a challenge asking for mercy by offering sometimes-novel explanations for his bad behavior.
It's his elder sister, Santita Jackson, who suggests her brother, 48, veered off course at the point of his greatest political triumph – when he won a House seat in a landslide in 1995 and entered Congress at age 30. Junior, she says, was better suited to the life he knew in his 20s pursuing a divinity degree at a Chicago seminary, which allowed him to take frequent breaks to think and "maintain his equilibrium."
"Every day he was able to indulge in his passion of fishing – a serene and calming undertaking," she writes.
She also blames persistent insecurities in her brother born of constant fear in adolescence that his dad, a confidant of assassinated civil rights icon Martin Luther King Jr., would himself be gunned down.
Former congressional aide Miryam Mesirow also wonders if Jackson's decline began when the legislator had stomach surgery in 2004 and lost considerable weight. Some staffers noticed emotional changes afterward, she wrote.
Jackson's mom, Jacqueline Jackson, describes becoming aware of her son's unraveling a year ago, just before he disappeared from public view. Months later, he disclosed he suffered from bipolar disorder and resigned his House seat.
"[I] found my son grossly underweight and in poor health," she writes. "When I took him to his Capitol Hill office to prepare for [a] vote, the office was in total disarray, which was most unusual for my son."
Judges frequently hear compelling life stories at sentencing hearings, so it's impossible to know if Jackson's will carry any sway with his sentencing judge – U.S. District Judge Amy Berman Jackson. She could give Jackson probation or impose the maximum sentence – five years in prison.
The Harvard-educated judge worked as a private attorney in Washington before taking her seat on the bench in 2011. Her clients included now-imprisoned former Congressman William Jefferson, who gained notoriety after FBI agents found $90,000 in his home freezer wrapped in aluminum foil.
Also stepping before her Wednesday will be Jackson's 49-year-old wife, a former Chicago alderman with whom the former congressman has two school-aged children. She pleaded guilty to filing false tax returns in connection to the misspent funds and prosecutors want a 18-month term for her
The audaciousness of their behavior and apparent greed could count against both husband and wife.
The combined salaries of Jackson and his wife were more than $300,000 during much of the time they were burning through donors' money.
Jackson, who was fond of presenting himself as a champion of the poor, spent $43,350 on the Rolex; an avid cigar smoker, he spent $17,000 on tobacco products.
Dozens of angry Illinois voters weighed in with letters of their own, arguing against leniency.
"I am aware that bipolar disorder can cause mood swings," wrote Philip C. Basil. "Can it also cause a lapse in honesty?"
In their own filings, prosecutors took particular umbrage at defense claims that Jackson's misdeeds were ultimately victimless. Jackson betrayed voters, they told the judge, and he undermined the democratic process by shaking public confidence in the nation's campaign-finance system.
They also dismiss the notion Jackson's bipolar disorder accounts for his improprieties.
There's no proof his bipolar mood swings had any bearing on the "3,100 illegal transactions that occurred during the life of the conspiracy," they say in one filing.
They describe how Jackson became swept up in the scandal of then-Gov. Blagojevich, who is now serving a 14-year sentence, including for seeking to sell the Senate seat Barack Obama vacated to become president.
While prosecutors never charged Jackson in that case, the FBI interviewed him about allegations his backers offered Blagojevich $1.5 million in campaign cash if Blagojevich named Jackson to Obama's old seat.
Far from dialing back on his misuse of campaign money as he became embroiled in the Blagojevich affair, Jackson "decided to double down on his criminal conduct," including by having some donors pay his personal bills directly, prosecutors say.
"One must," they add, "conclude that the defendant believed that the law did not apply to him."
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