Secret recordings of then-
talking about what he could get in return for a
appointment show that as the federal authorities closed in, there was just one contender he thought he could get a deal with — U.S. Rep.
Though he isn't charged and has repeatedly denied any wrongdoing, Jackson has suffered more collateral damage than any other politician so far in the former governor's political corruption trial. And when the trial is finished, Jackson faces the resumption of a House ethics probe into his actions.
Jackson has spent in excess of $200,000 in legal fees from his federal campaign fund amid the Blagojevich criminal investigation and the resulting congressional inquiry, which was put on hold at the request of the U.S. attorney's office while the criminal case plays out.
In expletive-laced conversations played in court and released publicly, Blagojevich and his inner circle ridiculed Jackson as a political lightweight unworthy of the Senate seat vacated by
. But Blagojevich warmed to the notion that Jackson loyalists could raise $1 million for the governor — an alleged scheme that prosecutors now say Jackson knew about.
Two days after that allegation surfaced in court, Jackson issued a statement Friday saying he "was never part of any improper scheme with Blagojevich or anyone else related to securing" the Senate vacancy. But he said it would be inappropriate "to clear up the misstatements made by some," until the trial ended.
While Jackson once said he had been informed he was "not a target of this investigation," on Friday his statement was worded differently: "I have never been advised that I am a target of this investigation."
The ambitious 14-year South Side and south suburban congressman, who was once bold enough to talk of challenging
, saw his zealous pursuit of the Senate seat explode into scandal when Blagojevich was arrested Dec. 9, 2008.
A day later, Jackson tried to quell the political firestorm over accusations that unnamed emissaries were offering to shower campaign cash on Blagojevich in return for Jackson's appointment.
"It's impossible for someone on my behalf to have a conversation that would suggest any type of quid pro quo or payments or offers," Jackson said in an interview with
News. "No one was authorized, is authorized nor am I aware of anyone making an offer to the governor on my behalf."
But it soon became clear that while Jackson was publicly pitching himself for the job, political players with ties to both him and Blagojevich were working behind the scenes. The Tribune reported on Dec. 12, 2008, that Indian businessmen had scheduled a fundraiser for Blagojevich with the aim of winning the Senate seat for Jackson.
Last week prosecutors took that a step further, alleging that Jackson was sitting at a table in a Loop restaurant in October 2008 when one of his supporters detailed the $1 million plan to him. Assistant U.S. Attorney Christopher Niewoehner's comments, out of earshot of the jury, marked the first time authorities publicly suggested the Democratic congressman was aware of the alleged scheme.
Jackson has not appeared on any recordings played by prosecutors at trial, but has been a frequent subject of ridicule in the wiretaps that capture Blagojevich and his top political advisers discussing what personal or political gain he might get because of his power to appoint Obama's replacement.
When a one-time Obama favorite for the Senate appointment,
, withdraws from consideration, incoming
chief of staff
suggests four names — including Jackson's. Blagojevich belittles the list as "politically correct."
"He's a bad guy," Blagojevich tells one adviser about Jackson on Nov. 7, just days after Obama won the presidency. "He's really not the guy I hoped or thought he was, he's really bad."
Much of Blagojevich's enmity toward Jackson stems from the congressman's refusal to endorse Blagojevich for governor. Blagojevich, who served in the state's congressional delegation prior to being elected governor in 2002, has maintained Jackson broke his promise to endorse.
Jackson was the most publicly aggressive candidate for the Senate appointment, launching a campaign-like bombardment of e-mails, petitions and phone calls from supporters to try to pressure Blagojevich into appointing him.
"I got some lady callin' my house for Jesse Jr. here a little while ago," Blagojevich grouses to deputy governor Robert Greenlee on Oct. 31, 2008 — four days before
The day after the Nov. 4 presidential election, a spokesman for Jackson stood at the back of the room of a Blagojevich news conference handing out news releases to the media. Jackson even commissioned a poll that he said showed him having a plurality of support from
"Jesse Jr. is promoting his Zogby poll that makes him the choice of most Illinoisans," Blagojevich tells his wife in a Nov. 12, 2008, phone call. "There's just no way I'm appointing him, man. Are you kidding? You've got to be kidding me."
But prosecutors allege that Jackson became a much more serious candidate as Blagojevich began to see that money as the only concrete benefit he could get in exchange for making the Senate appointment.
On Dec. 4, less than a week before his arrest, Blagojevich says he's beginning to keep "an open mind" on appointing Jackson because of the heightened promises of cash. Testimony last week showed the money offer was coming mostly from members of the city's Indian community, most notably Oak Brook businessman Raghu Nayak, who had supported both Blagojevich and Jackson.
At one point, the governor says he finds appointing Jackson "repugnant," but he also says it's better than nothing since he can't get anyone in
to cut a deal with him.
"And I can cut a better political deal with these Jacksons and, and most of it you probably can't believe, but some of it can be tangible upfront."
At the start of his career, Jackson was viewed by many as an up-and-comer who could one day challenge Daley or run for another higher office — his style less polarizing and controversial than that of his father, famed civil rights leader Rev. Jesse Jackson.
Jackson was able to mobilize a formidable political operation in the South Side and south suburbs, defeating the longtime African-American political dynasty headed by William and
. Jackson also got his wife, Sandi, elected as a South Side alderman.
But by the time of Blagojevich's arrest, Jackson's reputation with colleagues was one of a talker and not a doer, a man who made sure he was captured on TV shaking hands with the president at the annual State of the Union Address and who accomplished little other than pushing a third regional airport in Peotone, which has never gotten far off the ground.
Even Blagojevich's brother, Robert, who had been living in
for much of his life and had scant political experience, described Jackson as being "not emotionally stable to do anything other than, hell, cry." That was a reference to Jackson's tearful embrace with Daley at the
. "I mean he shouldn't even be a (expletive) congressman."
Tribune reporter Ray Gibson contributed.