Updated 08/14/13 – 1:45 p.m.
WASHINGTON (CBS) — Saying he used his campaign fund as “a personal piggy bank,” a federal judge sentenced former Congressman Jesse Jackson Jr. to 2 ½ years in prison for misusing $750,000 in campaign money to fund a lavish lifestyle.
And, despite defense pleas to spare his wife from also going to prison, Judge Amy Berman Jackson (who is not related to the couple) sentenced former Ald. Sandi Jackson to 12 months in prison.
The couple appeared stunned to learn both would be going to prison, with Jackson Jr. rocking in his chair in the courtroom, holding his head in his hands after the judge’s ruling. Sandi sat down, laid her head on the defense table, and sobbed after learning her fate.
As he left the courthouse, Jackson Jr. said he still believes in the power of forgiveness.
“I believe in the power of redemption. Today I manned up and tried to accept responsibility for the errors of my ways, and I still believe in the resurrection,” he said.
Sandi Jackson did not speak to reporters as they left court.
The judge said she would stagger the couple’s sentences so they are not behind bars at the same time. Initially, she said Sandi would have to go to prison first, but after seeing the couple’s stunned reaction, Judge Berman Jackson said she’d let the couple decide who should serve their prison term first.
Defense attorneys said Jackson Jr. would go to prison first, and although the judge said she thought it made more sense to have Sandi go to prison first, she agreed to have Jackson Jr. go first instead.
Jackson Jr. must report to prison by Nov. 1. Sandi will have 30 days to report to prison once Jackson Jr. is released.
In practical terms, Jackson Jr. could be set free after about 25 months after he reports to prison, given credit for good behavior. Because Sandi Jackson was not sentenced to more than a year, she cannot have her sentence reduced for good behavior, so must serve the full 12 months.
Judge Berman Jackson said she would recommend a federal prison camp in Alabama for Jackson Jr., or a federal prison hospital in North Carolina as a backup. Sandi Jackson’s attorneys asked the judge to recommend a prison camp for women in Florida. A final decision is up to the U.S. Bureau of Prisons.
Jackson Jr., 48, had pleaded guilty to misusing $750,000 in campaign funds to pay for his family’s lavish lifestyle. His wife Sandi, 49, has admitted to filing six years of false federal income tax returns, failing to report about $600,000 in income.
The judge called it “a very sad day, a difficult day” as she handed down the couple’s sentences.
Prosecutors had sought a sentence of at least 48 months in prison for Jesse Jackson Jr., and at least 18 months for Sandi Jackson. Defense attorneys were seeking 18 months for Jackson Jr. and probation for Sandi.
In rejecting the Jacksons’ pleas to spare them from both having to go to prison – so that their children would not see both parents behind bars – the judge said the Jacksons had no one to blame but themselves.
“It is not court that put your children in this position,” she said. “It’s going to be more difficult for the kids before this is over.”
She chided the Jacksons for using campaign donations meant to support the former congressman’s re-election efforts on expensive personal items, such as vacations, electronics, and home decorations.
“You and Sandra used campaign money to support a way of life you could not afford,” she said.
Calling her a “key player” in her husband’s campaign – for which Sandi served as campaign manager – the judge ran down a laundry list of purchases Sandi made with campaign money – from trips to Las Vegas, to expensive furs and home appliances.
“You personally and actively participated in the conspiracy,” Judge Berman Jackson said, adding that there was no justification for her actions.
The judge also rejected defense arguments that Jackson Jr. should get a more lenient sentence because of his bipolar disorder, saying she could not even tell if his crimes took place at the same time he was battling mental illness.
Admonishing Jackson Jr. for his actions, Judge Berman Jackson said, “There may be blurred lines for congressmen to follow when their lives are political, but this case did not come near those areas.”
Jackson Jr. had pleaded with the judge to spare his wife from prison, saying “give me her time” if probation was not an option for Sandi.
Prosecutors had sought prison time for both Jacksons, arguing parents are sentenced to prison every day.
Jackson Jr. was spared from having to pay restitution of the misspent campaign funds, in addition to the $750,000 forfeiture he agreed to as part of his plea deal. He has until Oct. 25 to come up with a plan to pay that forfeiture.
Sandi was ordered to pay $22,000 in restitution for her tax evasion conviction.
Prosecutors wanted Jackson Jr. to be forced to pay both $750,000 in restitution to his campaign fund, and the $750,000 in forfeiture as part of his sentence.
However, defense attorneys argued the couple does not have enough money to pay both forfeiture and restitution. Webb said Jackson Jr.’s only source of income since his resignation from Congress has been disability payments.
Judge Berman Jackson sided with defense attorneys, saying she would not order restitution, since the congressman’s campaign fund was the only victim of the misuse of funds, and now is defunct.
Jackson Jr. said he would “pay whatever obligations I owe.”
“I hope my wife can earn enough money to keep our family moving forward. When I get back, I will take on that burden,” he said. “I don’t want the IRS harassing my family while I’m away.”
Reading from a prepared statement at his sentencing hearing, Jackson Jr. apologized to his family and his constituents, but asked that his children – 13-year-old Jessica Donnatella Jackson, and 10-year-old Jesse Louis “Tre” Jackson III – “not suffer the consequences” for his crimes.
“I’m very sorry for what I’ve done. My whole life was political. I just lived that. I know I let a lot of people down, even my wife, and most of all my children,” he said.
Choking up repeatedly as he apologized for his crimes, Jackson acknowledged lying on campaign finance reports to hide his use of campaign funds to pay for furniture, jewelry, vacations, and other personal expenses.
“I misled the American people. I misled the House of Representatives. I misled the media by filing my reports. I was wrong. And I don’t fault anyone,” he said.
Jackson Jr. said he hoped the judge would sentence his wife to probation, and said “if probation is not available to her, give me her time.”
Sobbing as she read her own prepared statement, Sandi Jackson also apologized to her family, friends, community and constituents.
She said her crimes “caused disappointment in my community, and has put my family unit in peril.”
“This case has taken enormous toll on me. My heart breaks every day with the pain it’s caused my babies,” she added. “I ask the court for mercy, for me to be provider for my babies in the difficult months ahead.”
Sandi Jackson’s defense attorney, Dan Webb, said, if she is sent to prison, there would be “enormous harm to two young children” who would lose their mother.
Webb called Sandi Jackson a “dedicated mother” who is devoted to her children, and said sending her to prison would have a “devastating impact” on the Jacksons’ two children.
“The kids need Sandi’s nurturing now. To take her away to prison would be an unbearable burden,” he said.
Prosecutor Matt Graves said the government recognizes the impact the case has had on the Jackson children, but said parents are sentenced to prison every day, and he said Sandi does not deserve probation.
“Sandi stole. She stole a lot of money, over years,” he said.
Graves noted Sandi spent approximately $171,000 of her husband’s campaign money on herself, to pay for spas, vacations, and appliances.
Graves acknowledged Jackson Jr. deserved credit for cooperating with the investigation, and for agreeing to plead guilty even before charges were officially filed. He called Jackson Jr.’s cooperation “exceedingly rare.”
However, he also argued Jackson’s struggle with bipolar disorder should not factor into sentencing, saying there was no evidence Jackson’s mental health issues caused him to break the law.
Defense attorney Reid Weingarten disagreed.
“The disease affects decisions. I’m not Dr.Freud, but it’s beyond dispute,” he said. “We’d rather have him in care of psychiatrists here, not in prison.”
However, the judge said Jackson’s mental health problems would not cause him to steal $750,000 from his campaign fund for his own personal use.
Rev Jackson wondered if there was something he could have done.
“I didn’t see the sign coming. I don’t know if it is because I travel so much or misread the sign. I don’t know if I confused his success with his sickness,” said Rev. Jackson.
Earlier, Weingarten said the former congressman “suffered horror for those he let down” because of his mistakes.
In seeking leniency for Jackson Jr., Weingarten called his client a “good Congressman” who deserved credit for the work he did, though the prosecution argued Jackson shouldn’t get credit for doing his job.
Weingarten called Jackson Jr.’s crimes “aberrant behavior” for a “very special, charismatic, smart, kind” person.
Jackson Jr. served in Congress from 1995 until he resigned last November. He took a five-month leave of absence before resigning, as he was treated for bipolar disorder.
Sandi Jackson served as alderman of Chicago’s 7th Ward from 2007 until she resigned in January.
They formally pleaded guilty in February, after months of talks with federal prosecutors on plea deals for the couple.