Roll Call
September 10, 2013

Q. I am a Hill staffer with a question about the jail sentence Jesse Jackson Jr. recently received for campaign finance violations. I didn’t follow his case closely, but, from what I understand about it, the jail sentence struck me as a bit harsh. It’s not like Jackson killed anyone, or even harmed someone. And as a Hill staffer I know that campaign finance law can be very complicated, and because of that we are always worried about the possibility of inadvertent violations. What exactly did Jackson do that resulted in him going to jail?

A. On Aug. 14, 2013, at a federal courthouse in Washington, D.C., former Rep. Jesse L. Jackson Jr., once viewed by some as a rising political star, was sentenced to two and a half years in prison for federal crimes to which he had pleaded guilty earlier this year. His wife, the mother of his two young children, was also sentenced to prison for a year for her role in the crimes. She had also pleaded guilty.

So what did Jackson do? Technically, he admitted to conspiring to commit wire and mail fraud and making false statements. In plain speak, he acknowledged defrauding his campaign of approximately $750,000.

Federal election law requires that money donated to federal campaigns be used for official campaign purposes. This means candidates and their campaigns must monitor use of campaign funds to ensure that the funds are being used properly. You are correct that federal election law can be very complicated. And, because of that complexity, it can be easy to commit inadvertent violations without careful attention.

You are also correct that Jackson was not charged with killing or physically harming anyone. Indeed, at the sentencing hearing, Jackson’s attorney cited the absence of victims when urging the judge for leniency. “This wasn’t a Ponzi scheme,” Jackson’s counsel told the judge. “There are not widows and orphans surrounding the courthouse wanting his head.”

Yet prosecutors would take issue with the claim that there are no victims of the Jacksons’ actions or that their crimes weren’t serious. Lead prosecutor Matthew Graves said Jackson’s conduct was “staggering,” calling the case “one of the most significant abuses of the campaign-system.”

Indeed, in court filings earlier this year, Jackson admitted to repeated personal uses of campaign funds, totaling roughly $750,000. The Statement of Offense that prosecutors filed with the court, and that Jackson signed, states: “Rather than using funds donated to the Campaign as they were intended to be used — to pay for legitimate expenses associated with [Jackson’s] re-election, [Jackson] used a substantial portion of the contributed funds for personal expenditures.”

The Statement of Offense includes a long list of personal expenses for which Jackson used campaign funds, ranging from the mundane to the surreal. There were daily food expenses, clothing, toothpaste, car repair service and children’s bedroom furniture. And then there were vacations, high-end electronics, an expensive watch, Michael Jackson and Bruce Lee collector’s memorabilia, and even two mounted elk heads.

Jackson’s attorney asked for an 18-month sentence, while prosecutors sought four years. The two-and-a-half-year sentence that Jackson received was actually less than the standard sentence under federal sentencing guidelines, with the judge citing Jackson’s cooperation with the government as one basis for deviating.

But the judge did not have any doubt about Jackson’s guilt. “There may be blurred lines for Congress to follow when their lives are political,” she told Jackson at the hearing. “This case did not come near those areas.” She scolded Jackson for using his campaign’s funds as his “personal piggy bank” and called his actions knowing, organized misconduct that was repeated over many years.

So you are correct that federal election laws can very complicated, and that it’s possible to run afoul of those laws innocently. But Jackson’s case was not one where anyone claimed he was innocent.

Even though Jackson pleaded for mercy at the hearing, he acknowledged that what he did was wrong. “I misled the American people. I misled the House of Representatives. I misled the Federal Election Commission,” Jackson told the court. “I was wrong.”

© Copyright 2013, Roll Call Inc. Reprinted with permission.