Jesse Jackson Jr. is facing “significant jail time” in his pending plea deal over a Justice Department investigation of the misuse of his federal campaign fund, according to the Chicago Sun-Times.
Apparently, Jackson was using those funds to purchase things like a $40,000 Rolex. Jackson resigned last November in the midst of that investigation.
Converting contributions made to federal election campaigns to personal use is strictly prohibited by 2 U.S.C. §439a of the Federal Elections Campaign Act. Buying a Rolex violates that provision, as does spending contributions on a candidate’s other personal expenses such as mortgage payments, clothing, automobiles, vacations, tuition, tickets for sporting events, and health clubs. A knowing and intentional violation of this ban “aggregating $25,000 or more during a calendar year” opens up the violator to fines and imprisonment “for not more than 5 years, or both” under 2 U.S.C. §437g(d).
The Federal Election Commission (FEC) didn’t have many of these cases when I served as a commissioner, presumably because Members of Congress know this rule very well, but this is considered one of the worst violations of federal campaign finance law.
If Jackson really used donations and contributions to his congressional campaign fund to pay personal expenses, the consequences would be serious. His wife, Sandi Jackson, may also be in legal jeopardy. The Justice Department has apparently opened up a separate investigation on her because she was paid “nearly $5,000 a month from her husband’s campaign fund through her consulting firm.” The payments continued “even after Jesse Jackson Jr., checked into a mental health facility last year and—except for a robo-call—did not campaign for the Nov. 6. election, which he won.”
If Sandi Jackson was aware of or assisted her husband in converting contributions to personal use, she may face the same penalties, although her firm’s receipt of funds by itself is not proof that she assisted her husband in converting contributions to personal use. If she was receiving $5,000 a month from the campaign without providing any legitimate services for those payments, however, that could be a separate violation. The FEC’s regulations provide that any salary payments received by a family member that are not for “bona fide services to the campaign” are also considered “personal use” (11 CFR 113.1(g)(1)(i)(H)).
Our campaign finance laws are overly complex and overly restrictive. But this is one area where the law is clear and completely legitimate. Candidates running for federal office should not be using the contributions that their supporters send them to run for office to buy themselves Rolex watches or to give their family members (and thus themselves) a cushy income for no work.