Feb. 24 -- Prosecutors took a tougher stand against Jesse Jackson Jr. than his wife, Sandi, because they viewed him as the one who enabled the couple's seven-year $750,000 spending binge in which campaign dollars were spent on luxury goods, celebrity memorabilia, spa treatments and even a trip to Disney World.
Top federal prosecutor Ronald Machen Jr., in an interview with the Tribune, said the ex-congressman was the "most culpable" of the two Jacksons and added: "He enabled this entire thing to take place. He was the bigger name. When people gave money to that campaign, they were giving money because of him."
On Wednesday, Jackson Jr., a U.S. representative until he resigned in November, and his wife, a Chicago alderman until she resigned last month, made tearful, back-to-back guilty pleas to felony counts in a courtroom blocks from the Capitol. Both could land in prison.
A day after the pleas, Machen, 43, U.S. attorney for the District of Columbia, sat down with the Tribune to take stock of the case, saying he was struck by the duration of the crimes and the couple's extravagant tastes, featuring a $43,000 men's Rolex, a mink cashmere cape and Michael Jackson's fedora.
"It's indulgence in the excess," he said. "It's so over the top."
Jackson Jr.'s spending and cover-up led to a guilty plea Wednesday to one felony count of conspiracy to commit false statements, wire fraud and mail fraud. Documents released by the government detailed illicit expenses that ran the gamut from toilet paper at Costco to a football signed by U.S. presidents to two stuffed elk heads from Montana.
Machen said of Jackson Jr.: "He had some unique personal whims, and he believed that campaign funds could be used to satisfy them."
Sandi Jackson, who pleaded guilty to a felony tax count, was not a "focal point" in the case "until more recently," the prosecutor said.
Machen was asked to address two key questions: What might have motivated the two? And what made them think they'd get away with it?
The prosecutor, noting that he'd been involved in many such cases, said greed -- and habit -- came into play. At some point, the behavior becomes so commonplace that people "don't view it as theft because they become so used to it. The more you do it, the easier it becomes just to continue to do it. And when it's not questioned or brought to light, you can just kind of go down this path, and that's what happened here."
He declined to disclose when the probe of the Jacksons began or what triggered it.
The Jacksons "did get away with it for a long time," he said, but crimes like the Jacksons' "do leave financial trails."
Speaking about his office's investigations in general, he said, "We do get tips. We investigate those, and if there's something there, we follow up vigorously."
He said the Jackson probe was run out of Washington, not in Chicago, with FBI agents and IRS criminal investigators, and he said his office was "very aggressive, very creative" in its tactics.
An aspect that made this case particularly unusual was that while federal authorities were investigating Jackson Jr., he was undergoing treatment for mental problems. His medical leave was announced last June, when "exhaustion" was cited. Later it was announced that Jackson Jr. suffered from bipolar disorder.
After Jackson Jr.'s guilty plea, his defense lawyer said his health problems were a factor in the crime spree.
Machen said he "has an open mind" about what the defense will argue at sentencing -- the ex-congressman's sentencing hearing is June 28 and the ex-alderman's is July 1 -- but it was hard to "imagine how you can explain away seven years of criminal conduct through a recent condition, especially when he was functioning as a congressman until very recently."
Jackson Jr. could face 46 to 57 months in prison, while Sandi Jackson could face one to two years. But the judge has discretion to go outside those sentencing guidelines.