Jackson faces some tough penalties

  • Article by: KATHERINE SKIBA CHICAGO TRIBUNE
  • Updated: February 18, 2013 - 11:59 PM

The former congressman plans to plead guilty to buying luxury goods with campaign funds.

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Jesse Jackson Jr., shown in 2011, resigned in November from the seat he had held in Congress for nearly 17 years. He plans to plead guilty to using campaign funds to buy luxury items and other goods.

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Former Rep. Jesse Jackson Jr., who plans to plead guilty to using campaign dollars to buy more than $750,000 worth of luxury items, memorabilia and other goods, is at risk of losing his freedom and a federal pension estimated at $45,000.

Jackson, 47, who could be in court as early as this week, faces up to five years in prison, according to federal prosecutors.

His wife, Sandi, a former Chicago alderwoman facing a separate felony charge of filing false tax returns for six years, could get up to three years in prison, they said. Like her husband, she has agreed to plead guilty.

Jackson Jr. has been ordered to pay a judgment of $750,000 and surrender some of the goods he bought. He and his wife each could be fined up to $250,000 as well. Sentencing is likely weeks away.

Ohio State University law Prof. Douglas Berman, an expert on federal sentencing, said Jackson Jr.’s high-dollar crimes, mental condition and duties as a public servant will be considered at sentencing.

“His exposure — the most he could properly get if the judge decides to throw the book at him — clearly is at least five years,” Berman said, “and it may be significantly more.”

He said some factors help the Jacksons, including their stated remorse, their lack of criminal records and their willingness to plead guilty, saving the government from the burden and costs of a trial.

What hurts him is the long duration of the offenses set out in the federal charges, Berman said. And he noted that it’s unclear whether prosecutors will bring up Jackson’s dealings with now-imprisoned former Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich.

Berman said his best early guess was that Jackson Jr. would be sentenced to “a year and a little bit more.”

Sandi Jackson’s punishment is likely to be less harsh, he said, explaining that because of the couple’s two young children, she might be given probation.

Jackson Jr. has bipolar disorder, but even if prosecutors are sympathetic to his illness, they will want to make clear that having mental problems does not mean you can commit crimes with impunity, Berman said.

The job of defense lawyers is to minimize their clients’ exposure to prison, which may have been done in negotiations over the criminal counts, and “to tell a story as sympathetic as possible,” Berman said.

What about his pension?

Jackson Jr. resigned Nov. 21 from the seat he had held in Congress for almost 17 years. Pete Sepp, executive vice president of the National Taxpayers Union, calculated then that Jackson Jr. — who had not then been charged but was under investigation — might be eligible to collect a pension of $45,000 a year when he reached 62. Washington attorney Ken Gross said Monday that if Jackson Jr. pleads guilty, that pension is in jeopardy because of a law that strips pensions from lawmakers convicted of an array of public-corruption crimes.

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