After several high-profile misfires, federal prosecutors may be on a winning streak when it comes to public corruption cases that target current or former members of Congress.
On Wednesday, former Rep. Jesse Jackson Jr., D-Ill., will be sentenced after pleading guilty to charges that he misused campaign funds. The sentencing comes about a month after former Rep. Rick Renzi, R-Ariz., was convicted on charges of influence peddling.
"Conviction after a trial against Renzi and the guilty plea of Congressman Jackson allays some of the concerns that developed about whether the Justice Department can win high-profile political corruption cases," said Peter Henning, a professor at Wayne State University Law School.
He added, however, "I'm always a little leery about reading too much into any one case because there really are not that many high-profile public corruption cases, and they are each unique."
While not everyone is impressed—some argue that both of these cases were legal slam dunks and that there are other corruption cases that the Justice Department should pursue but has shied away from—the department is undeniably posting wins.
That stands in contrast to the botched prosecution of the late Sen. Ted Stevens of Alaska under the Bush administration. His 2008 corruption conviction was overturned the following year after it was determined prosecutors had concealed exculpatory evidence and allowed false testimony to be presented at trial. At the time, Stevens was the longest-serving Republican senator. Some say his conviction on counts he lied on his Senate disclosure form to conceal gifts from an oil-industry executive and others unfairly cost Stevens reelection.
That was followed by the acquittal of John Edwards, the former North Carolina senator and vice presidential and presidential candidate, on a charge of accepting illegal campaign contributions. The jury deadlocked on five other felony counts, but the Justice Department later decided not to retry him on those counts.
The unsuccessful prosecution of Edwards in an alleged scheme to obtain illegal campaign contributions to help conceal his pregnant mistress was later widely criticized as a waste of taxpayer money, a case built on a dubious legal foundation.
However, federal prosecutors will chalk up a high-profile victory on Wednesday when Jackson and his wife, Sandi, a former Chicago alderman, are set to be sentenced in federal court in Washington.
Former Rep. Jackson pleaded guilty to misusing $750,000 in campaign funds on personal items, and prosecutors are recommending four years in prison. Sandi Jackson pleaded guilty to filing false joint federal income tax returns, and prosecutors are recommending 18 months in prison and that she pay restitution.
Renzi was convicted June 11 in a federal jury trial on 17 charges related to a land-swap deal involving allegations he used his congressional influence to profit personally from the sale of land and the exchange. He is scheduled to be sentenced on Aug. 19.
Renzi was indicted in 2008, and the case involved a number of twists and turns over the years, including unsuccessful arguments by Renzi that his prosecution was precluded under the Speech or Debate clause of the Constitution.
Henning, the law professor, also notes that former Rep. William Jefferson, D-La., was convicted in 2009 on 11 of 16 counts of bribery and other corruption charges in a case in which the FBI reported finding $90,000 in cash stuffed in the freezer of his Washington, D.C., home. He began serving his 13-year prison sentence last year, following unsuccessful appeals.
But Melanie Sloan, executive director of the D.C.-based Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, says she is "not about to give huge kudos" to the Justice Department and its Public Integrity Section for its successes in the Jackson and Renzi cases.
"I'm glad they prosecuted these cases," she said. But she added that both cases were "easy cases to build." She noted prosecutors were actually looking into something else when the Jackson campaign fund misuse issues came up. In the end, she asks, how could the Justice Department not go after the former congressman's using campaign money "to pay for things like Michael Jackson memorabilia?"
As for Renzi, Sloan said the case may have taken a long time, but it "was not that hard."
Sloan said she would be more impressed if federal prosecutors haven't been declining to pursue criminal prosecutions against other lawmakers in matters where she says there is clear evidence the law has been violated.
For instance, she noted that a 2011 Senate Ethics Committee report made a criminal referral to the Justice Department's Public Integrity Section regarding former Sen. John Ensign, R-Nev., but that no action has been taken.
The committee's conclusions included that Ensign had made false statements to the Federal Election Commission, violated campaign finance law, and conspired to help a former aide, Doug Hampton, evade a law against lobbying the Senate within a year of working there.
Still, the Jackson and Renzi cases both represent undeniable instances in which federal prosecutors prevailed against former lawmakers. "The black eye of the Stevens case will never really go away, for very good reason," Henning said, "but the confidence level of federal prosecutors should be much higher."
This article appears in the July 2, 2013, edition of National Journal Daily.