CHICAGO — Records from former U.S. Rep. Jesse Jackson Jr.'s divorce case show how he has been able to collect hefty benefit checks from the federal government after serving time in prison for looting hundreds of thousands of dollars from his campaign fund.
Jackson, 51, receives about $138,400 a year — more than he made as a freshman congressman in 1995. Most of that — about $100,000 — is workers' compensation and tax-free, according to Chicago lawyer Barry Schatz, who is representing Jackson in his divorce proceeding.
The rest of Jackson's benefits are Social Security Disability Insurance payments, some of which may be taxable, Schatz said.
The payments flow to Jackson because he has bipolar disorder and depression — the issues that led to an extended leave from Congress in 2012 — and those conditions have been exacerbated by a "very difficult, contentious divorce" from former Chicago Alderman Sandi Jackson, Schatz said.
"Whatever benefits Jesse Jackson Jr. has, he earned them, and as a matter of law, he's entitled to them," the lawyer said. "If the government thought he wasn't entitled to them, they wouldn't be paying them."
Jackson's workers' compensation benefits are for a temporary, total disability, Schatz said. His health is checked once a year or more, and should it improve, the benefits might change, he said.
"He's not a slacker," said Schatz, who disclosed that the ex-congressman is on medication and "not currently able to work."
The president of a taxpayer watchdog group said the payments show "the system is still finding a way to take care of ex-lawmakers convicted of crimes and often in better fashion . . . than many Americans with lesser financial means could expect.
"Once again, the average taxpaying citizen is left to wonder if justice was done for them," said Pete Sepp, who heads the nonpartisan National Taxpayers Union in Washington.
Jackson, a Chicago Democrat, spent 17 years in Congress before resigning while under FBI investigation. He pleaded guilty in 2013 to using about $750,000 in campaign cash over several years for vacations, luxury goods, celebrity memorabilia and other items. At the time he resigned in late November 2012, he was being paid $174,000 a year.
Before quitting, Jackson had taken a leave for treatment for bipolar disorder and depression. Jackson's workers' compensation benefit statement gives June 1, 2012, as his "date of injury." Yet he cast 72 separate roll-call votes in the House of Representatives from June 1 to 8, 2012, not missing a single vote, House records show. Later that month, his office said he was on a leave of absence and being treated for what at first was called "exhaustion."
Jackson won re-election in November 2012 with 63 percent of the vote. He did not campaign or run a TV ad, but addressed voters in a pre-election robocall. "Like many human beings, a series of events came together in my life at the same time, and they've been difficult to sort through," he said in the call. "I am human. I'm doing my best. And I'm trying to sort through them all."
Records indicate Jackson is collecting workers' compensation at the top rate given a person with a temporary total disability.
The Federal Employees' Compensation Act gives workers' compensation benefits for disability "due to personal injury or disease sustained while in the performance of duty," the Labor Department said.
Schatz couldn't explain how the former congressman's job had caused his bipolar disorder and depression. "I can't give you an explanation as to how and why," he said. "I can tell you that medical experts have diagnosed him, and as a result of the diagnosis, he is entitled to disability payments.
"If someone had a choice whether they wanted to be bipolar or not, I don't know of anybody that would want to choose to be bipolar, no matter what they were paid," he said.
Ari Wilkenfeld, a Washington employment lawyer who has handled dozens of disability cases, said it would be highly unusual to collect federal workers' compensation for bipolar disorder. He said he knew of no other such cases and that his firm, Wilkenfeld, Herendeen & Atkinson, often represents federal employees.
"What's remarkable here is by his getting workers' comp, it appears that Congressman Jackson's attorneys have convinced the government that his bipolar disorder was created by the rigors of being a member of Congress," Wilkenfeld said.
Details about Jackson's six-figure payments were disclosed in a court order after Sandi Jackson started a divorce proceeding last year in the Superior Court of the District of Columbia.
In her criminal case, Sandi Jackson, 53, was convicted for failing to report on their income tax returns most of what her husband took from campaign funds.
Jesse Jackson, sentenced to 30 months in prison, spent about 22 months in correctional facilities, a halfway house and home detention. He remains on supervised release, or what used to be called parole, a federal official said Wednesday.
After his release, his wife began a one-year sentence in a federal prison camp and fulfilled the obligation last October. She left the camp in September and wrapped up the last month of her term on home detention.
Jesse Jackson has filed for a divorce in Cook County, separately from his wife's request in Washington.
District of Columbia Superior Court Judge Robert Okun's order required Jesse Jackson to pay temporary child support for the couple's two children, 16 and 13, and revealed the ex-lawmaker's annual benefits payments of $138,400.
One court exhibit is Jackson's workers' compensation benefit statement from the Labor Department. The statement covers a 28-day period ending last Dec. 10. It shows Jackson's gross compensation was $7,699 for the period.
The government also paid $977 for his health insurance in the same period, a benefit separate from his workers' compensation and disability insurance payments. The health insurance code on the statement is 105, which the Labor Department said is a Blue Cross Blue Shield Standard Self & Family Plan.
The maximum rate for a federal employee's workers' compensation is 75 percent of the top salary in the U.S. government's "general schedule," or GS, which sets out pay levels for most civil service workers. In 2016, the top GS-15 salary was $133,444 a year.
Such benefits are subject to annual cost-of-living increases, the Labor Department said.
If a federal employee is receiving both workers' compensation and Social Security Disability payments, the benefits together each month may not exceed 80 percent of the employee's average monthly wage at the time of disability, according to a 2016 report by the Congressional Research Service.
Georgetown Law professor David Super noted that workers' compensation and Social Security Disability are insurance programs, so Jackson's benefits simply reflect his years as a well-paid congressman. Jackson entered the House in 1995, when lawmakers earned $133,600 a year, and he had several pay raises while in office.
"There's an argument for designing the programs differently, more as subsistence programs," Super said, "but that's not what we've done."
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