CHICAGO – When former Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich was sentenced on Wednesday to 14 years in federal prison, it marked the fourth time since 1968 that an Illinois governor has been convicted and sentenced to jail time. For Congressman Jesse Jackson, Jr., however, his troubles in connection with Blagojevich are just beginning.
“His misconduct tarnished our state,” Jackson said on Thursday as he addressed the National Association of Letter Carriers Chicago branch. “When President Obama won his election, I was interested in serving as your Senator. During that time, I only did what was legal, ethical, and what was appropriate to express my desire to serve the people of this state.”
Jackson, who is in his ninth term in congress, faces allegations that he tried to make a deal with Blagojevich for an appointment to the U.S. Senate seat formerly held by President Obama in late 2008. During Blagojevich’s trial, prosecutors said he attempted to give the Senate seat to Jackson in exchange for $1.5 million in donations.
The House Committee on Ethics is still trying to determine whether Jackson or someone representing him conspired with Blagojevich in exchange for the Senate appointment, which eventually went to former Illinois Secretary of State Roland Burris. Jackson never faced criminal charges in the scandal.
“Let’s be honest. No one wants this cloud over their head,” said Illinois Senator Dick Durbin. “The house ethics committee issued a bi-partisan statement. I read it carefully. It said don’t assume anything other than we’re continuing the investigation.”
The Ethics Committee began its investigation in the spring of 2009 but later suspended it at the request of the U.S. Attorney’s Office. Jackson has repeatedly denied any wrongdoing, but the committee found probable cause that he was involved in a plot to buy the senate seat.In a statement last week, Jackson promised to cooperate with the continued investigation: “For the first time in three years, my side of the story will be made public and for that I am grateful,” Jackson said. “I did nothing illegal, unethical or inappropriate.”
Blagojevich, who was convicted of 18 criminal counts, was the first sitting Illinois governor to be both impeached and removed from office, the fourth since 1968 to be convicted of criminal charges — the others were Otto Kerner, Dan Walker, and George Ryan — and the second consecutive governor to be sentenced to prison time. Ryan, his predecessor, is currently serving a 6½-year sentence for racketeering, bribery, extortion, money laundering, and tax fraud.
Blagojevich is scheduled to report to federal prison on Feb. 16. Under federal sentencing guidelines, he will not be eligible for release until 2024, when he is 67 years old.
“My life is ruined,” he said during his sentencing. “I have nobody to blame but myself for my stupidity and actions and words and what I thought I could do. I’m not blaming anybody.”
While Jackson is not facing any prison time, he is facing a different kind of challenge. In the 2010 midterm elections, Jackson retained his seat with an astonishing 85 percent of the vote. In the upcoming 2012 elections, he faces a primary challenge from Former congresswoman Debbie Halvorson – who lost her house seat during last year’s midterm elections.
District 2, Jackson’s district, has been re-drawn to include not just Chicago’s South Side, but more suburban and rural neighborhoods in the Chicagoland area, including Kankakee. She says that Jackson is too focused on the scandal and not enough on his constituents.
“If he truly did nothing, they should have cleared him,” Halvorson said. “But they did not clear him and they put together a 300-page report on things that they’re looking into. The people of the 2nd Congressional District deserve to know the differences between he and I but they haven’t been able to get him out there to talk about the issues.”
Jackson’s own fundraising efforts have been stunted by the scandal. His biggest supporters and donors — a list that in the past has included Aretha Franklin, Hunter Biden (Vice President Joe Biden’s son) and Rev. Al Sharpton — are on hold as Jackson tries to sort out these issues.
The investigation in the House will be ongoing with no known timetable on when it will end. If the committee formally accuses Jackson of any wrongdoing, they would move to an “adjudicatory phase,” where the burden is proof is lower than it is in criminal courts.
Guilt is established on the basis of clear and convincing evidence rather than beyond a reasonable doubt. House members found guilty of violations are subject to sanctions including a letter of reproval, a fine, reprimand, censure, or — in the most extreme cases — expulsion from the House of Representatives.
In the face of all these problems, Jackson has persisted in saying one thing: “I will be vindicated.”