CHICAGO - Jesse Jackson Jr., the son and namesake of a civil rights icon and once a rising Democratic Party star, would have likely flown on Air Force One Friday had corruption charges not short-circuited his political career.
Instead, as his friend President Barack Obama was flying to Chicago for a speech, accompanied by members of the Illinois congressional delegation, federal prosecutors filed criminal charges against Jackson Friday in Washington. He resigned from Congress on Nov. 21 as the probe in the case unfolded.
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Jackson, 47, was accused of misusing $750,000 in campaign funds for purchases including a $43,000 Rolex watch and a hat that belonged to the late pop singer Michael Jackson (no relation). He intends to plead guilty to one count of conspiracy to commit wire fraud, mail fraud and making false statements, one of his lawyers, Brian Heberlig of Steptoe & Johnson LLP, said in an email.
“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,” Jackson, who faces a maximum sentence of five years in prison, said in an e-mailed statement. “Still I offer no excuses for my conduct and I fully accept my responsibility for the improper decisions and mistakes I have made.”
The ex-lawmaker’s wife, Sandra Stevens Jackson, was charged in a separate case with filing false tax returns and will plead guilty to one count of tax fraud, her lawyers, Dan Webb and Tom Kirsch of Winston & Strawn LLP, said in a statement.
The downfall of the couple, once viewed as a budding Chicago powerhouse, derails the Jackson family’s role in politics and blemishes its almost five-decade legacy of public service.
Jesse Jackson Jr., benefiting from name recognition as the son of the Reverend Jesse Jackson Sr., entered the U.S. House in 1995 after winning a special election for a vacant seat. In subsequent general elections, he never garnered less than 81 percent of the vote until last year when he won a 10th term with 63 percent.
The younger Jackson was often mentioned for higher office, including mayor of Chicago, considered by many as the most powerful political job in Illinois.
Jackson’s political fortune started to shift shortly after Obama won the White House in 2008, when the congressman pressed to replace the president-elect in the U.S. Senate and ended up getting caught up in the scandal surrounding former Illinois Governor Rod Blagojevich’s attempts to sell the seat.
Identified in court papers as “Senate Candidate 5” and someone willing to raise money for the governor’s re-election, Jackson denied the allegations and said he wasn’t a target in the federal probe. Blagojevich was convicted in June 2011 and sentenced to 14 years in prison.
Educated at the elite Washington prep school St. Albans, Jackson graduated from North Carolina A&T State University in 1987. He earned a master’s degree in theology from Chicago Theological Seminary and a law degree from University of Illinois College of Law.
Before entering politics, Jackson worked as the national field director of the Rainbow Coalition, the group founded by his father. He both benefited from his father’s name and was often overshadowed by it as well. In Chicago, the son is still often simply referred to as “Junior.”
The elder Jackson, 71, was a lieutenant in the civil rights movement led by Martin Luther King Jr. He was with King when the civil rights leader was assassinated in 1968 in Memphis, Tennessee.
Jesse Jackson Sr. emerged as a power among national Democrats, as he sought the party’s presidential nomination in 1984 and 1988. The younger Jackson, in a speech that won positive reviews, introduced his father at the 1988 Democratic National Convention in Atlanta.
In Congress, Jesse Jackson Jr. held a spot on the influential House Appropriations Committee.
Tension between father and son surfaced in 2008, when Jesse Jackson Sr. was recorded on a live microphone before a television interview criticizing Obama as a presidential candidate. The elder Jackson had used coarse language as he suggested Obama and his campaign were “talking down to black people.”
The son -- then a co-chairman of Obama’s campaign -- responded with a statement that sought to distance himself from his father’s remarks.
“I thoroughly reject and repudiate his ugly rhetoric,” Jesse Jackson Jr. said. “He should keep hope alive and any personal attacks and insults to himself.”
Jackson’s resignation from the House followed a roughly six-month absence from Congress. His office initially said he was suffering from exhaustion, although later it was revealed he had depression and bipolar disorder and had been hospitalized at the Mayo Clinic in Minnesota.
“Over the past several months, as my health has deteriorated, my ability to serve the constituents of my district has continued to diminish,” Jackson wrote in his resignation letter. His district deserves “a full-time legislator in Washington, something I cannot be for the foreseeable future,” he said.
His wife cited her husband’s illness when she resigned as a Chicago alderman last month, a position she’d held since 2007.
A special primary to start the process of replacing Jackson in Illinois’ 2nd Congressional District will be held Feb. 26. The winner of the Democratic primary in the heavily Democratic district will most likely win the special election that follows and represent and area that includes parts of Chicago’s South Side and southern suburbs.
One of the best-known names to replace Jackson is Debbie Halvorson, a former one-term congresswoman. She is alone among leading contenders in the race to oppose an assault weapons ban, instead favoring tougher penalties for gun crimes.
New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s super political action committee, Independence USA, has spent heavily on the race, attacking Halverson’s gun control views with television advertising and mail pieces. Bloomberg is founder and majority owner of Bloomberg News parent Bloomberg LP.
Through Feb. 12, the super-PAC had spent $1.4 million on the race, according to Federal Election Commission records.
Halvorson has accused Bloomberg, an ally of Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel, of using his wealth to try to “buy an election in Illinois.”