Jesse Jackson Jr.'s violations more of the same in Illinois

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Former U.S. Rep. Jesse L. Jackson Jr. and his wife, former Chicago Alderman Sandi Jackson, will probably see the inside of a prison after pleading guilty to conspiracy and misappropriation of campaign funds.

The son and daughter-in-law of civil rights icon Jesse Jackson Sr. have been the targets of federal corruption probes for what seems like years.

Mr. Jackson won re-election to his House seat representing Chicago's South Side in November despite a federal sword of Damocles hanging over his head. Winning yet another term despite the likelihood of jail time said more about the unimpressive nature of his rivals in the Democratic primary than it did about his hapless Republican opponent in the general election.

Because he was being treated for depression and bipolar issues at a facility far removed from Capitol Hill, Mr. Jackson missed a good chunk of the legislative year (not that a whole lot was happening, anyway). Still, the bulk of his constituents never lost faith, which is either a sign of their intense loyalty or an indication of their inability to make sensible political distinctions.

The Jacksons are accused of turning $750,000 in campaign donations into a private slush fund out of which they financed their credit card debt. They also paid for luxury goods, vacation cruises and their children's education and covered routine expenses out of this fund. Because Ms. Jackson was her husband's campaign manager at one time, she knew how to reroute cash to where it would do the couple -- but not democracy -- the most good. The result was a lot of lying on House campaign financial disclosure forms and joint tax returns.

Mr. Jackson faces up to 57 months in federal prison and up to a $100,000 fine along with forfeiture of some, if not most, of the money he and his wife stole from his campaign fund. Included in the prosecutor's inventory of graft is a $43,000 Rolex watch, a hat that once belonged to Michael Jackson and memorabilia connected to Bruce Lee, Malcolm X and Martin Luther King Jr. It represents the kind of cheesy self-indulgence one typically expects from televangelists and other shameless rapscallions.

"Over the course of my life I have come to realize that none of us are immune from our share of shortcomings and human frailties," Mr. Jackson said in a statement subtly spreading the sin around last week.

"Still, I offer no excuses for my conduct and I fully accept my responsibility for the improper decisions and mistakes I have made. To that end, I want to offer my sincerest apologies to my family, my friends and all of my supporters for my errors in judgment, and while my journey is not yet complete, it is my hope that I am remembered for the things I did right," Mr. Jackson said in what will probably be his most unequivocal admission of guilt until he stands before the sentencing judge.

With both Jacksons facing multiple years in prison, prosecutors in Illinois continue the grand tradition of treating public servants, even those elected to the highest offices, the same as common criminals -- without fear or favor. The state's past two governors were sent to prison. The Jacksons aren't accused of misappropriating public funds, but penalties for violating the public trust make no distinction between those funds and campaign money.

Pennsylvania has no shortage of elected officials sent to jail for corruption in recent years, but it is hard for us in this state to imagine a scenario in which governors Tom Corbett, Ed Rendell and Tom Ridge are immediately sent to prison after serving their terms in Harrisburg. Meanwhile, that's the Illinois reality every few years.

That's why I find so inexplicable the Obama administration's reluctance to prosecute a single Wall Street entity or banker for nearly derailing the American economy in 2008. President Barack Obama is a former Illinois politician. His closest advisers come from Chicago. Mr. Obama was a U.S. senator from a state that doesn't hesitate to send public officials to jail. If anyone should be unsentimental about elected criminals, it should be a president who spent his formative political years in Illinois.

If a civil rights icon's son and various government officials can expect to be prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law when they violate it, why can't the men and women who mismanaged financial institutions considered "too big to fail" expect similar scrutiny and prosecution?

What costs the economy more -- the relatively petty thievery of a memorabilia-collecting congressman or the systematic looting of the economy by Wall Street insiders? Why can't we prosecute both?

tonynorman

Tony Norman: tnorman@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1631. Twitter: @TonyNormanPG.


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