The Chicago political couple got a fraction of the prison time their crimes called for. See if it works that way for you.
It’s obvious there was much drama in the courtroom as Jesse Jackson Jr. and his wife, Sandi, waited to be sentenced in the theft of $750,000 from his campaign fund.
He cried and she cried, and after the drama came the actual sentence.
So let’s talk about what actually happened. Let’s put off the discussion of the wet tissues and the echo of sniffles, and that vague and unproven spin about Jackson’s reported, but unsupported, mental illness.
First, consider what federal Judge Amy Berman Jackson (no relation) did to Chicago’s royal political couple from that courthouse in Washington.
She didn’t bring her federal hammer down. She didn’t throw the book at them. She didn’t even give them a sharp slap on the wrist.
She gave them some federal time, but not as much as they deserved.
In real terms, Jackson will serve a little more than two years, and she’ll serve one. Not a bad price for stealing and spending three-quarters of a million dollars.
This is not a tragedy for the Jacksons. It’s a victory.
But for us? It’s a sad joke.
He’s a former U.S. representative, and she’s a former Chicago alderman. Junior made six figures as a congressman. She made six figures as an alderman. He also paid her hundreds of thousands of dollars in extra money as a consultant. That sum was also taken from campaign funds, but was deemed “legal” by the Federal Election Commission.
On top of the hundreds of thousands in legal cash coming in each year, the Jacksons wanted more.
So they took three-quarters of a million dollars that didn’t belong to them and spent it on spas, jewelry and junk. Included in the pile of junk was ridiculous Michael Jackson memorabilia, an Eddie Van Halen guitar and absurd stuffed elk heads.
And for that he gets a little over two years in real time and she does 12 months? Not bad.
But at least America received a twisted civics lesson from one of Jesse Jackson Jr.’s lawyers, Reid Weingarten. He suggested that politicians who steal from their own campaign funds don’t really hurt anybody. He downplayed it as if he wanted us to think it was a victimless crime.
“This wasn’t a Ponzi scheme,” Weingarten told the judge. “There are not widows and orphans surrounding the courthouse wanting his head.”
Yes, he’s correct. There were no impoverished widows and orphans demanding Jackson’s head.
But far outside the courtroom, in their own homes or at what jobs they can find, were hundreds of millions of Americans who pay their bills and play by the rules and get slapped around by the political class.
Still, Weingarten’s argument was so catchy it deserves a special name so that it may be taught in law schools: The Reid Weingarten Widows and Orphans Absolution.
According to the Weingarten Absolution, it is a victimless crime for a politician to loot his own campaign fund. Then what, pray, is a political campaign fund in America, if what the Jacksons did is OK?
Nothing but a box full of bribes.
After they got their rather light sentence, Jesse Jr. left the courtroom and made his final speech outside for the TV cameras. It wasn’t Blubbering Junior, but Junior Seeking Redemption.
“I still believe in the power of forgiveness,” he said. “I believe in the power of redemption. Today I manned up and tried to accept responsibility for the errors of my ways. And I still believe in the resurrection.”
If Jackson truly wants forgiveness, I hope he receives it. Personally, I’ll forgive him right now. But he should do something else first: four years in prison, which is what the feds suggested, and what’s called for under the recommended federal sentencing guidelines. Junior got half of what he had coming.
Though the Jacksons might play the wounded spirits, they’ve got to be celebrating. They’re not naive. They’ve had their behinds smooched for years in Chicago. Each graduated from law school. So they know the rules.
Just try stealing $10,000 and see how much time you’ll get. Knock off a gas station for a few hundred dollars and get caught and see what the judge gives you.
The judge won’t give you a lecture, as did Judge Jackson to the Jacksons. You won’t have high-priced legal talent working pro bono, as the Jacksons received. If you’re poor, you’d get a public defender. Some are quite good at their jobs. But most are overworked and underpaid.
You’d get real time. And your roommate behind bars won’t likely be another crooked politician who’ll quote Shakespeare or Edmund Burke. Your roommate will most likely be an illiterate who amuses himself by kicking your teeth out.
What’s odious about the Jackson case is the carefully leaked media spin that the theft was the result of Junior’s reported mental problems. Junior is tightly wound, no doubt. Watching him narrowly skip away from that business of allegedly trying to buy a U.S. Senate seat demonstrated how uptight he is.
But prosecutors in court Wednesday said that none of Jackson’s claims about his mental illness was supported by any evidence or testimony from psychiatrists. In other words, it was just spin.
At least Chicago can look past the tears and the wet tissue to see what happened:
The Jacksons had money. They didn’t need to steal. They took $750,000 because they felt like it.
And they got off easy.
The Opinion section is produced by the Editorial Department to foster discussion about key issues. The Editorial Board represents the institutional voice of the Star Tribune and operates independently of the newsroom.