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Roll Call

Jackson Staff Aided Pursuit of Appointment to Obama Senate Seat

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Rep. Jesse Jackson Jr. (D-Ill.) used his Congressional staffers in an influence campaign to win appointment to the Senate seat vacated by President Barack Obama and in the process, became implicated in a pay-to-play scheme to raise money for former Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich (D), according to Congressional investigators.

Though Jackson’s attorneys agree with most of the facts in the case — which were detailed in a report by the quasi-independent Office of Congressional Ethics — they say Jackson did not mastermind or have knowledge of the pay-to-play scheme, and any misuse of his staffers was unintentional.

The House Ethics Committee today released both the OCE report and a response letter from Jackson’s lawyers in conjunction with its announcement that the committee would continue to probe the matter without forming an investigative subcommittee.

The two documents are remarkably similar in their accounts of how Jackson sought to repair his “frosty” relationship with Blagojevich in order to gain appointment to the Senate.

“Because he had a poor relationship with Blagojevich — due to past political differences and a history of rebuffing Blagojevich’s ‘pay-to-play’ politics — Congressman Jackson concluded that the only way he could gain the appointment was by making a public case ... and sought assistance from any and all sources to voice support for Congressman Jackson with Blagojevich,” the letter from Jackson’s attorneys at Steptoe & Johnson said.

The OCE investigators wrote “on two occasions Rep. Jackson was told that Gov. Blagojevich was looking for something of value in exchange for the Senate appointment.”

Jackson has known for almost a decade the sort of politics Blagojevich favored, the documents show.

In 2002, Jackson was asked by former Rep. Bill Lipinski (D-Ill.) to donate $25,000 to then-Rep. Blagojevich’s gubernatorial campaign. He declined. After the election, Jackson asked the governor to consider appointing his wife, Sandi Jackson, to the state’s lottery commission. Blagojevich later chose someone else, according to accounts told to his attorneys and investigators.

“In 2003, Congressman Jackson spoke with Blagojevich in Washington, D.C., and Blagojevich said he was sorry the ‘lottery thing’ did not work out with Sandi Jackson. Then, as he was leaving the room, Blagojevich turned and, in a move that reminded Congressman Jackson of Elvis, snapped his fingers, pointed at Congressman Jackson, and said, ‘You should’ve given me that $25,000,’” according to the letter submitted by Jackson’s lawyers.

Jackson’s attorneys describe another meeting several years later in which the Congressman was told that Blagojevich would support a project to build an airport outside Chicago if he was given a seat on the airport commission, which later prompted Jackson to call the U.S. Attorney’s Office.

In 2008 Jackson attended a meeting about the same project at which his close family friend, Raghuveer Nayak, is said to have promised a Blagojevich representative that he would raise $1 million for his re-election bid in exchange for Jackson’s appointment to the Senate.

“At no time during the meeting, however, did Congressman Jackson ever authorize or overhear any offer by Nayak to raise campaign funds ... if in fact Nayak made such an offer. ... Jackson is deeply disappointed in his former friend,” the letter from Jackson’s attorneys said. “Congressman Jackson’s contacts with the U.S. Attorney’s Office provide important context for the allegations that the Ethics Committee is investigating. It simply makes no sense that Congressman Jackson would have reported Blagojevich’s pay-to-play misconduct to the authorities, and agreed to provide a full report to the U.S. Attorney’s Office, at the same time he was engaged in his own purported pay-to-play scheme to obtain the Senate seat in exchange for campaign contributions.”

Nayak, Blagojevich and his representative at the meeting did not cooperate with the OCE’s investigation.

The OCE first referred the Jackson matter to the ethics committee in August 2009 and it stalled while the Department of Justice completed its investigation of the former governor. The committee resumed its investigation in mid-October and has the power to subpoena the individuals who did not participate the OCE’s probe.

Blagojevich was convicted of 17 separate corruption charges in June and is scheduled to appear in court for sentencing on Dec. 6.

More problematic for Jackson than the pay-to-play charges could be allegations that he misused official government resources for his Senatorial bid, in part because there is more documentation and it would be easier to prove, experts told Roll Call.

The OCE report details how two of Jackson’s senior staffers used their government email accounts and official titles to contact editorial boards to promote the idea of Jackson’s appointment, attended meetings related to his Senate bid and drafted letters about why an Indian-American interest group in Chicago should support Jackson’s appointment to the Senate.

“The chief of staff described Representative Jackson alternatively as both the coach and the quarterback of their campaign for the seat or as the coach and himself as the quarterback,” the OCE report noted.

Jackson’s attorneys contend that since he was not conducting an actual Senate campaign, his staffers’ involvement in the process cannot be construed as an improper use of official resources. But ethics experts told Roll Call that any use of Hill staffers for tasks not related to the Member’s official duties — whether it’s drafting campaign literature or picking up dry cleaning — is a violation of ethics rules unless it the tasks are simply incidental.

“To the extent that the committee concludes that any of the activities engaged in by [staffers] in the congressional offices went beyond the exceptions discussed in the House Ethics Manual, such violations were inadvertent and resulted from the novelty of the situation presented by the vacant Senate seat and the subsequent appointment process,” Jackson’s lawyers wrote.

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