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WASHINGTON -- Former Rep. Jesse Jackson Jr. (D-Ill.) was sentenced to two-and-a-half years in prison followed by three years probation by a federal judge in Washington on Wednesday for misusing about $750,000 in campaign funds.
Jackson's wife, Sandra, was also sentenced Wednesday. She will serve one year in prison and was ordered to pay $22,000 in restitution, after pleading guilty to a related charge of filing false tax returns. U.S. District Court Judge Amy Berman Jackson, who is not related to the Jacksons, allowed the couple to stagger their sentences so their children would have at least one parent at all times. Jackson Jr. will go to prison first, followed by Sandra.
Jackson Jr. pleaded guilty in February to using campaign funds to purchase an array of personal items, including Bruce Lee memorabilia, a $43,000 Rolex watch and a mink cashmere cape.
Jackson, the son of the civil rights leader Rev. Jesse Jackson, made an emotional plea to the judge Wednesday, wiping his eyes and blowing his nose as he asked the judge for some leniency. He apologized to his constituents and his family.
"If probation is not available to her, give me her time," Jackson said, referring to his wife. He said he needed to be "as far away from everybody for a while that I could be."
Reid Weingarten, Jackson's defense attorney, asked for an 18-month sentence for his client and argued that there were "not widows and orphans surrounding the courthouse" wanting Jackson's head. Weingarten said that there was a time when members of Congress could treat their campaign funds as retirement accounts. "This is not Madoff, this is not a ponzi scheme," Weingarten said.
But a federal prosecutor handling the case called Jackson's fraud one of the most significant abuses of the campaign system that has ever been documented and prosecuted. The government asked for four years in prison.
U.S. District Judge Jackson said the Jacksons used the campaign as a "personal piggybank," but said she was confident that "there will be another chapter" for Jackson Jr. But the judge said that while Jackson did not pose a threat to society, a significant jail sentence was necessary to serve as a deterrent to other politicians who might consider raiding their campaign coffers for personal gain.
"The ethical standard has got to be simply higher than unindicted," Judge Jackson said. She said she would have trouble explaining a probation sentence to the donors whose campaigns funds the couple misused.
Judge Jackson said that the fact that the couple had two young children did not mean that Sandra Jackson could get off with just probation.
"It is not the court that put your children in this position," Judge Jackson said. "It is not the government that put your children in this position," she added, calling the prison sentence "survivable."
Jackson Jr. will have to forfeit $750,000, but Judge Jackson ruled against a government request that the Chicago Democrat additionally pay $750,000 to the defunct campaign fund. The DOJ's request, Judge Jackson said, made no sense and served no purpose, calling the plan "impractical and unworkable" to create a "new campaign from scratch" without any clear goal.
“Jesse Jackson Jr.’s journey from the halls of Congress to federal prison is a tragedy of his own making,” U.S. Attorney for the District of Columbia Ronald Machen said in a statement. “Jackson’s political potential was unlimited, but he instead chose to treat his campaign account as a personal slush fund, stealing from the people who believed in him so he could live extravagantly. He squandered his great capacity for public service through outright theft. The prison sentence imposed today should serve as a wake-up call to other public officials who believe there are no consequences for betraying the public trust.”
Jackson Jr. made brief comments to reporters and cameras waiting outside the federal courthouse.
"I still believe in the power of forgiveness. I believe in the power of redemption. Today I manned up and tried to accept responsibility for the error of my ways, and I still believe in the resurrection," Jackson Jr. said before boarding an awaiting SUV.