Ethics Committee decision could haunt Rep. Jackson reelection bid

The House Ethics Committee will decide in less than three weeks whether to formally investigate Rep. Jesse Jackson Jr. (D-Ill.) over allegations that he tried to improperly obtain President Obama’s former Senate seat.

The secretive Ethics panel’s decision — set to be made by Dec. 2 — could put the nine-term Illinois lawmaker in a highly precarious and dangerous position leading into his heated March 20 primary election. 

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Jackson’s Democratic challenger, former Rep. Debbie Halvorson, has been using the looming possibility of an investigation in her attacks on the incumbent lawmaker, who has maintained his innocence. A formal probe of Jackson would greatly expand her firepower. 

For more than two years, the House Ethics Committee has deferred its consideration of the allegations that Jackson used public resources to promote his appointment for the seat while the Justice Department completed its investigation of former Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich (D). 

But with Blagojevich’s conviction earlier this year on 17 of the 20 corruption charges — centering on his attempt to sell the Senate seat for which he was tasked with appointing a successor — the Ethics panel announced it would reconsider the Jackson matter. 

The allegations that Jackson might have spoken to several people about trying to get the seat from Blagojevich were voiced during the former governor’s trial. 

Jackson testified at Blagojevich’s hearing but was not charged with any wrongdoing. 

He firmly denies the accusations and maintains he will be “vindicated” by the Ethics Committee. Jackson has also said he has never spoken to Robert Blagojevich, the former governor’s brother and lead campaign fundraiser, who has offered to talk with the committee as it considers whether to launch a formal probe. 

Jackson’s office declined to comment for this article. 

If the Ethics panel does investigate Jackson, the veteran lawmaker is likely to push for a speedy resolution, in order to get it behind him before the primary. A probe that runs through his March primary date without a verdict could leave voters with too many unanswered questions about whether they can trust Jackson at his word.

Veteran lawmaker Rep. Charles Rangel (D-N.Y.) was in a similar electoral predicament last year as he faced a looming ethics battle ahead of his primary and general election.

Rangel said in an interview with The Hill that one of the most difficult aspects of his campaign was the failure of the Ethics Committee to deliver a verdict on the charges against him.

“I just wanted a decision, one way or another, so I knew what kind of campaign to run,” said Rangel. 

Rangel stressed that his situation was distinctly different from Jackson’s and that much of the fate of the Illinois lawmaker will rest in whether voters in his district believe the allegations are true or not.

Two weeks after he was elected to his 21st term in office, Rangel was found guilty of violating 11 of the 13 ethics charges brought against him, and was censured by the chamber.

Jackson has said he’s set to gain Obama’s endorsement. And at an NAACP event earlier this month, he told a crowd he was looking forward to being cleared by the Ethics Committee. 

“I believe in the American system of justice,” he said. “The process is continuing and in the end I believe I will be vindicated.”

But Halvorson has continually attacked Jackson’s congressional record, attempting to paint him as a Washington-centric politician who is disconnected from his district and embroiled in ethics controversies. 

“People are sick and tired of his ethics problems, the fact that he’s never around, that he hasn’t done anything,” said Halvorson, according to Fox News in Chicago. 

Dave Wasserman, the House editor of The Cook Political Report, said that while Jackson’s ethics issues are going to be a thorn in his side, they are not going to seriously jeopardize his reelection. 

“There are usually enough ethics questions in Illinois or Chicago for one like this to get lost in the mix,” said Wasserman. “I don’t think he’s vulnerable unless the charges get more serious.”

Wasserman said that even if the Ethics Committee does not reach a verdict in Jackson’s case before his primary, the looming possibility of guilt won’t be enough to dissuade voters.

Voters in Illinois’ 2nd district are no strangers to scandal. Jackson’s predecessor, Rep. Mel Reynolds (D-Ill.), resigned from the seat in 1995 after he was convicted on 12 counts of sexual assault, obstruction of justice and solicitation of child pornography.

An investigation into Jackson would also be likely to draw a great deal of unwanted heat to the committee from fellow black lawmakers. 

Jackson would be the third black member of Congress to fall under an investigation by the Ethics Committee, which is probing a fourth black member without a formal investigative subcommittee.

The committee has drawn the ire of many in the Congressional Black Caucus (CBC) over the last two years as it launched multiple investigations into allegations against black lawmakers — as many as eight at one point.