But federal prosecutors unveiled an image of Jackson as less a public servant and more a politician interested in surrounding himself with treasures. A gold-plated Rolex. Furs and cashmere capes. Memorabilia from the likes of Michael Jackson, Bruce Lee and Martin Luther King Jr. Luxuries out of the reach of the many people trying to stay above the poverty line in Jackson's former South Side congressional district.
The charges, months in the making, are the latest development in a steady but grand fall for the onetime political power couple.
The son of the Rev. Jesse Jackson once was considered a wunderkind in Chicago politics and a threat to become Chicago mayor. Then he became ensnared in the scandal that brought down former Gov. Rod Blagojevich. Last June, Jackson took a leave of absence from Congress amid the probe and an eventual diagnosis of bipolar disorder.
Now both Jacksons are expected to sign plea deals with prosecutors.
The 10-page criminal information issued Friday against Jackson, 47, is filled with details about how he allegedly used his campaign fund as a personal piggy bank.
Prosecutors said Jackson and someone they identified only as "Co-Conspirator 1" attempted to conceal the spending by falsifying financial reports to the U.S. House and campaign reports filed with the Federal Election Commission. The Tribune has identified "Co-Conspirator 1" as Sandi Jackson. She is not charged in her husband's case.
"The goal of the conspiracy was for Defendant Jesse L. Jackson Jr. and Co-Conspirator 1 to enrich themselves by engaging in a conspiracy and a scheme to defraud in which they used funds donated to the Campaign for their own personal benefit," prosecutors said in their federal filing.
From 2007 to 2009, prosecutors said, Jackson used campaign funds to buy a $43,350 men's Rolex watch, more than $9,500 in children's furniture and more than $5,000 in furs and cashmere capes. He had all the items shipped from Chicago, New Jersey and Beverly Hills, Calif., to his home in Washington, prosecutors said.
Prosecutors also said Jackson filed false federal election documents in 2008 when he stated he spent $1,553 to rent a room at a Chicago museum for a fundraiser when, in fact, he spent it on "porcelain collector's items." More recently, Jackson did not disclose $25,000 in 2011 from an unnamed owner of an Alabama company that helped pay down the Jacksons' personal credit cards.
Jeff Cramer, a Chicago attorney and former federal prosecutor, said the D.C. legal filing makes it clear that prosecutors wanted the public to know the extreme types of items the former congressman purchased, including a Michael Jackson fedora for $4,600 and a "Michael Jackson and Eddie Van Halen guitar" that alone cost $4,000.
"These things were paid for with monies contributed to his campaign fund with the intent to help him to get re-elected and pursue an appropriate political agenda for his district, a district which is currently dealing with very serious issues such as gun violence and economic troubles," Cramer said. "He used the account like an ATM machine without regard for the outrageous nature of the items."
In the South Shore neighborhood that Jackson Jr. represented in Congress and Sandi Jackson represented in the City Council, residents were flabbergasted by the excess of the alleged purchases from a couple who had long said public service was their top priority.
"There are too many people out here suffering," said Misty Washington, 45, pointing down a South Shore street. "Why didn't he use the money for something positive to help the people here?"
"Really, furs?" added Tony Marshall, who said he's lived in the South Shore neighborhood since 1971. "I voted for him — and I wish I could take it back."
The 2nd Congressional District already had been battered by scandal when Jackson won a 1995 special election to replace Rep. Mel Reynolds after Reynolds was convicted on charges that included federal bank fraud and sexual misconduct with a 16-year-old campaign aide.
Jackson quickly became a rising star in Chicago and Washington, building a robust political organization on the South Side and in the south suburbs while earning seniority in Congress to become the sole member of the Illinois delegation on the powerful House Appropriations Committee.
Jackson routinely toyed with the idea of running against longtime Mayor Richard M. Daley, who feared a powerful African-American opponent, but Jackson chose not to run after Democrats retook the House in 2006.