Jeff Smith: Should Jesse Jr. Cooperate with the Feds?

Many have written eloquently about Jesse Jackson Jr.’s sad fall. But now it’s time for Jackson to focus on minimizing his penalty and reputational damage in order to preserve future opportunities for himself and his family.

In his letter of resignation from Congress, Jackson eschewed the defiance of Rod Blagojevich, suggesting a guilty plea is likely. Jackson also said he is cooperating with investigators.

But cooperation has a legal meaning far stronger than its common meaning; a defendant can be “cooperative” without cooperating in the legal sense. That is, a defendant may promptly fulfill most of a prosecutor’s specific pre-indictment requests — detailing his crime(s), resigning from office, declining interviews, etc — but that won’t be enough to receive an elusive 5K-1 letter, the government’s reward for defendants who help them make cases against others. A 5K-1 letter is the best way to persuade a judge to depart downward from federal sentencing guidelines.

The public typically associates politicians with ambition. But many investigators are similarly motivated. Law enforcement officials know that people who prosecute Joe Sixpacks aren’t first in line for promotions. The chosen — and those who write books, appear on TV, or even seek office themselves — are investigators who pursue the biggest scalps. (See Congressman-elect George Holding, the prosecutor who indicted John Edwards and then resigned to seek office before the trial.)

Therein lies Jackson’s problem/opportunity. He is surrounded by possible high-value targets: his dad, the famed civil-rights leader who runs Operation PUSH; his wife, Sandi, a prominent Chicago alderwoman; his brothers Jonathan and Yusef, businessmen/activists who own a lucrative beer distributorship purchased after their father had organized a boycott of the brewery’s products; dozens of high-level public officials with whom he mingles.

Sun-Times columnist Mike Sneed reported Friday that Jackson is, in fact, “singing with the voice of an anxious canary” and that the feds are interested in all he knows about a “powerful dem femme” who is not an alderman.

Prosecutors assume Jackson is aware of other wrongdoing. So should he inform on his family, friends, and former colleagues? There are many reasons to.

1) First and foremost, it is the best way to reduce his sentence, as recipients of 5K-1 letters must “provide substantial assistance” to the government. Though there are other grounds for downward departure for which Jackson could qualify, including a defendant’s “extraordinary mental and emotional condition,” none beats a 5K-1 letter.

2) Though it would be unpleasant to inform on close friends or relatives, it won’t be the most painful form of cooperation: the wearing of a wire. It’s far too late for that.

3) Revealing everything might help him “clear the decks” and move on psychologically.

4) Revealing everything likely precludes future prosecution.

5) If he receives a prison sentence, he could receive a more favorable placement.

Of course, anyone facing such a difficult decision should carefully weigh the pros and cons; there are also reasons not to inform:

1) Upon arrival in prison, offenders with shorter sentences than their crimes would warrant are often asked to “show (your) papers,” since they are suspected of having snitched. If they cannot show evidence to the contrary, they are in for hard time. I won’t go into details here, but in prison, snitches are only a notch above pedophiles.

2) Informing will cost him some friendships. That will mean fewer prison visits, fewer letters and books sent in, and fewer people to help him re-emerge upon release.

3) It isn’t inconceivable to imagine a political future for Jackson. Congressman Alcee Hastings (D-Fla.) was once a federal judge impeached for bribery and perjury by a of 413-3 U.S. House vote, then convicted and removed by the Senate. Washington, D.C.’s Marion Barry is another comeback story. Informing could hinder a potential resurrection.

4) To paraphrase a famous play, prosecutors only want the Glengarry leads; any attempts to inform may not yield the preferred high-value targets. This would leave Jackson having harmed friends without any offsetting benefit. Since the government has the leverage, they don’t give 5K-1 letters until they receive the desired information.

5) Informing might also have an adverse psychological effect. During my first month in prison, an inmate with whom I unloaded trucks noticed my bitterness towards my ex-best friend, who had gotten me to admit (on tape) signing a false affidavit. “You gonna have one (messed)-up year,” he said. “But that (guy) with the wire’s gonna have one (messed)-up life. Won’t be able to look in the mirror.”

I don’t know if that’s true or not. But I know that when I decided against wearing a wire, resigned, and pled guilty, a burden was lifted. Prison was no picnic, but every day since I resigned has been better than the last. That’s something Jackson should remember: while there are no surefire ways to avoid prison or assure an easy bid, in many respects, the hardest part ended the day the story hit.

(Cross-posted, with permission of the author, from the Chicago Sun-Times)


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