Out of sight for months and seeking re-election in weeks, Rep. Jesse Jackson Jr.'s return to Congress by voters may be virtually assured, but a new federal investigation of the South Side Democrat has made his political and legal future even more tenuous.
The probe by federal prosecutors in Washington into whether Jackson misused campaign funds is but the latest example of how the once-bright future of a 17-year congressman with big political aspirations greatly dimmed after his involvement with imprisoned former Gov. Rod Blagojevich four years ago.
A source close to Jackson, who was not authorized to speak publicly about the congressman's situation, said Tuesday that there was no change in Jackson's status as a candidate for re-election but cautioned that matters surrounding the latest federal investigation were "all in the lawyers' hands now."
The look at Jackson's finances is an "ongoing inquiry," according to a federal source familiar with the probe. Another source, speaking on condition of anonymity, said the investigation into campaign finances has been ongoing "for months" and that vendors to Jackson's campaign are among those being questioned in the case.
On Tuesday, a woman who identified herself as a co-owner of a suburban office furniture company told the Tribune that federal authorities contacted the business within the past month or so to tell the operators they would be receiving a federal subpoena for records connected to a purchase of furniture by Jackson's campaign committee.
Campaign finance records show that Jackson's campaign committee purchased office furniture from the company for $8,000 in September 2010.
Jackson's last real power lies in remaining a member of Congress. Though he potentially faces prosecution, his title as congressman could provide him with a bargaining chip to trade with authorities in exchange for avoiding a contentious prosecution or stiffer penalty.
Many top Democrats acknowledge there are no last-minute preparations to replace Jackson on the Nov. 6 ballot because they don't believe he'll drop out and is all but a shoo-in to win in a 2nd Congressional District drawn to heavily favor Democrats, and the congressman in particular.
Under state election law, Democratic leaders have only until Monday — 15 days before the election — to pick a replacement candidate should Jackson opt to remove his name from consideration. After that, Jackson's name would appear on the ballot. Should he decide later to resign, a special election would be held several months down the road.
Top Chicago Democrats also said privately that they believe Jackson's tenure in Congress may be short-lived, due to the new federal investigation but also in light of his drama-filled summer. Jackson's camp offered few details about his June medical leave from the House that finally led to the revelation in August that he was being treated for bipolar disorder.
Jackson has not campaigned publicly, and spotting him has become fodder for gossip websites. The Daily reported that it found Jackson outside his DuPont Circle home in Washington smoking a cigar Monday. Jackson told the site he's "not well" and visits a doctor twice a day at a nearby hospital. The Daily also said it confirmed that Jackson had shown up twice last week at a D.C. bar with a group of people that included men and women.
In 2008, Jackson faced federal scrutiny over his involvement in trying to secure President Barack Obama's former U.S. Senate seat from Blagojevich. Jackson's political stock rapidly declined amid allegations that a wealthy supporter and longtime friend, Raghuveer Nayak, offered Blagojevich up to $6 million to appoint the congressman to fill Obama's Senate vacancy.
Nayak, who was arrested on unrelated federal fraud charges in June, had told federal investigators that Jackson asked him to raise campaign money for Blagojevich in hopes the then-governor would appoint the congressman to the seat, sources familiar with the investigation have told the Tribune.
Jackson has denied any knowledge of fundraising in exchange for the appointment, but the allegations over the Senate seat prompted an ongoing investigation by the House Ethics Committee. Jackson has said he expects to be vindicated by the ethics panel.
Under House rules, a violation of a law involving a House member "that may have been disclosed in a committee investigation" can be reported to federal or state authorities by a vote of two-thirds of the ethics panel's members.
Federal law prohibits candidates and officeholders from using campaign dollars for personal obligations such as a home mortgage, rent, utility payments, a noncampaign automobile expense or a country club membership, to name some examples.
Jackson had $113,055 in his campaign treasury Sept. 30, according to reports filed with the Federal Election Commission. From January 2011 through September, he had $983,096 in contributions and about $1 million in expenses, the reports showed.
Jackson's campaign treasurer in Chicago, Vickie Pasley, and his lawyer in Washington, Reid Weingarten, did not return phone calls for comment Tuesday. The U.S. Justice Department, the U.S. attorney's office for the District of Columbia and the FBI's Washington field office had no comment Tuesday about Jackson.
Tribune reporters Richard A. Serrano, Hal Dardick, John Chase, Jeff Coen and Annie Sweeney contributed.