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Ex-Rep. Jesse Jackson Jr.’s federal pension in jeopardy, experts say

(MCT) — WASHINGTON — 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, observers said.

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 alderman facing a separate felony charge of filing false tax returns for six years, faces up to three years in prison, they said. Like her husband, she has agreed to plead guilty, according to announcements by their separate legal teams Friday.

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 professor 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 Jackson Jr. 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 or the ex-congressman’s former relationship with a woman whose plane fare to Chicago was picked up by a Jackson friend.

Berman said his best early guess was that Jackson Jr. would be sentenced to “a year and a little bit more,” and added: “But how hard the prosecutor pushes and what additional, aggravating information they put forward is definitely going to shape the sentencing outcome considerably.”

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.

Since the two are unique defendants who held public office, the court of public opinion will sway what prosecutors and judges do, he said. Berman cited the public-corruption nature of the charges against Jackson Jr., predicting that the government will want to make an example of him “so no one is fooled into believing that once you’re a prominent politician, you can cut corners and get away with this.”

Jackson Jr. suffers from 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.

Jackson Jr., 47, resigned last 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.

Jackson is the son of the Rev. Jesse Jackson Sr., who issued a statement Monday asking for prayers for his son, his daughter-in-law and their children. In the statement, he said his son is “struggling with the highs and lows of his bipolar disorder” and under “tight medical supervision.”

The father, speaking in an interview, said his son was in Washington — but not in a medical facility — and was seeing doctors and taking medicine. He said his son faced medical and legal challenges and “the additional pressure of press knocking at his door.”


(Tribune reporter Kim Geiger in Chicago contributed.)

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